Remember When India Pulled Off One of the Biggest Upsets in Davis Cup History?
The Davis Cup has a knack of destroying reputations and rankings
In the early 1990s even as the Amritraj brothers Vijay and Anand had retired, India managed to stay in the prestigious Davis Cup World Group thanks to the experience of Ramesh Krishnan and the emergence of Leander Paes. There was never any chance of India repeating their feat of making the final in 1987, but they remained fairly strong challengers in the highly competitive field.
At the start of the 1993 competition, however, there remained a clear threat of being relegated to the play-offs thanks to a tough draw. In the first round India’s opponents were Switzerland. Their top two players Jakob Hlasek and Marc Rosset were among the leading players in the world good enough to be ranked in the top ten at one time or the other during their career. As far as the Indians were concerned Paes was on his way up, but Ramesh was clearly past his best and in fact this was the last year he played in the competition.
But Davis Cup has a knack of destroying reputations and rankings and India’s players right from the days of that pioneering great Ramanathan Krishnan had proved them wrong. Also besides playing at home and on their favourite grass appeared to redress the balance.
Still, Switzerland were the favourites when the tie started at the South Club courts in Calcutta but Paes put India one up with an easy 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Hlasek. Rosset however restored parity with a hard fought 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 win over Ramesh.
The doubles now crucial was a ding dong tussle going all the way to the fifth set before Paes and Ramesh put India ahead by defeating Hlasek and Rosset 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3. But when Rosset got the better of Paes 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 it was left to Ramesh to see that India were not relegated to the play-offs. The 32-year-old seasoned campaigner did this without much ado defeating Hlasek 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
Defeating Switzerland in India though a commendable achievement was one thing. To defeat France in Frejus loomed ahead as a mission impossible. That anyway was the next assignment as France had gotten the better of Austria in the first round. Their two top players were Henri Leconte and Arnaud Boetsch.
The former’s credentials were admirable for besides being a finalist at the French Open in 1988 he had made the semifinals at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the US Open in 1986. That year he had achieved a career highest ATP ranking of No 5. Boetsch had made the fourth round in each of the four Grand Slams during the 90s and had a highest ATP ranking of No 12 in 1996. And besides being an away tie for the Indians it was to be played on their least favourite surface – clay.
It was no surprise that the home team were installed as prohibitive favourites as the tie got underway.
Not unexpectedly France went one up when Boetsch defeated Ramesh 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. But Paes as he did so often during his Davis Cup career made nonsense of the rankings by defeating Leconte 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. With the sides 1-1 again the doubles would prove vital and here Boetsch and Leconte proved too good for Ramesh and Paes winning 7-6, 6-3, 6-4. Requiring victory in only one of the two remaining singles, France were clearly in the driver’s seat. However Paes made sure it would all go down to the fifth rubber with a straightforward 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 win over Boetsch.
There was a lot of drama involving the decisive fifth rubber. In the first place Leconte was injured and he had to be substituted by Rodolphe Gilbert. This was a stroke of good fortune for the Indians but Gilbert was still ranked higher than Ramesh and he had the backing of a vociferous partisan crowd. However, Ramesh, calm and cool as ever, had played a number of live fifth rubbers through the years and was equal to the task. It turned out to be a real see- saw battle for supremacy.
The left handed Gilbert won the first set 6-2 but Ramesh restored parity taking the second 6-4. Gilbert again went ahead by winning the third set 6-4 only for Ramesh to fight back and take the match to a fifth set by winning the fourth 7-5. Soon after the decisive set started it started getting dark and play was suspended when the score was 4-4 because of bad light.
One can imagine the tension and excitement as the players trooped off. What would the morrow hold? Would it be Ramesh or Gilbert who would hold his nerves better? Would it be India or France making it to the semifinals? By now Ramesh himself was jaded from playing too much tennis in the extreme heat and humidity. At 32 he was not the fittest of players.
That night the French masseur who was attached to the team gave him a good massage which he repeated the next morning and Ramesh, nicely warmed up, was feeling good as he stepped onto the court. Generally a slow starter he fully understood the need to get off to a fast start and moving fluently he took the next two games to wrap up the set, the match and the tie in India’s favour.
India had made it to the semifinals for the first time since their dream run in 1987. The spectators were stunned because they expected France to win. From the Indian viewpoint there were no major celebrations and Ramesh remembers getting into a car and driving back to Geneva to catch the flight back home. The dream run ended there as India lost to Australia in the semifinal. But Frejus 1993 will always occupy a special place in the annals of Indian tennis. It remains one of the greatest upsets in Davis Cup history.