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Glorious peaks to grim inertia, India’s Davis Cup history a throwback to bygone era

In a promotional video by the All India Tennis Association (AITA) in the lead-up to India’s Davis Cup tie against Denmark in New Delhi, India’s top players throw a line each on what the event means for them. The veteran Rohan Bopanna calls it “prestigious”. “It’s what we dreamt of when we were kids,” says Ramkumar Ramanathan. Yuki Bhambri adds there’s nothing quite like representing the country.

In a sport that rewards individual excellence, Davis Cup glory finds a special place in a country’s tennis folklore. The Indian team has stood within inches of that, and indeed miles away too, while players have set benchmarks in their Davis Cup history that clocks back to a century.

The Davis Cup records India’s first encounter in July 1921, beating France away 4-1 with Mohammed Sleem winning both his singles matches. The country’s big boom in the “World Cup of tennis”—as the Davis Cup brands itself—came in the 1960s, a decade in which India beat some mighty outfits including Australia, Brazil, and Germany, to name a few.

Victories against two of those three teams came in the winter of 1966, arguably India’s best Davis Cup campaign which took them all the way to the final for the first time ever. After beating Iran, Sri Lanka, and Japan, India took on Germany in the inter-zonal semi-final. Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaidip Mukerjea won their respective opening singles ties before Mukerjea and Premjit Lall lost in doubles to keep the visitors alive. Mukerjea came back on the third day to complete the job in the first reverse singles, beating Wilhelm Bungert in four sets to gift India a 3-2 win.

Less than a month later, the inter-zonal final witnessed more iconic scenes at the South Club in Kolkata (then Calcutta). Locked at 2-2 against Brazil, Krishnan produced a stunning turnaround from two sets down in the final reverse singles to beat Tomas Kock 3-6, 6-4, 10-12, 7-5, 6-2 in front of thousands of spectators. The triumph not only gave a massive shot in the arm to Indian tennis, but also a chance to compete for a maiden Davis Cup title with Australia. Playing on the grasscourts of Melbourne, India lost all four singles matches for a 4-1 defeat. Nonetheless, a maiden Davis Cup final entry was a big deal.

“It was huge. No one expected us to get there. We had a good team back then; Krishnan was a top player. Beating Germany and then Brazil was amazing,” Mukerjea, looking forward to seeing the current crop take on Denmark at Delhi Gymkhana, said. “It is very nostalgic. And I’m proud to have been a part of that.”

Indian tennis was on a high, and world tennis was taking note. “We were considered a leading and strong opponent for any nation because of our performances,” Krishnan, a two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist, had told this paper.

Over the course of the two next decades, India entered two more Davis Cup finals, becoming the only nation other than Romania to have contested more than one final without winning the Davis Cup.

In 1974, India beat Japan 4-1, stunned defending champions Australia 3-2 (this match in Calcutta had 327 games, a Davis Cup record for most games in a tie; the record still stands) and went past USSR 3-1 but gave a walkover to South Africa in the final protesting the apartheid. The historic decision by the Indian contingent is still discussed and debated, and Mukerjea believes it was the best shot for an Indian team—led by Amritraj brothers, Vijay and Anand—to be crowned champions.

“It’s very unfortunate because that was a very good chance. Vijay Amritraj was at the top of his game at that time. We could have upset the South African team, for sure,” Mukerjea said.

Thirteen years later, India had another crack at the crown. In the 1987 edition, India beat Australia 3-2 again with Krishnan’s son, Ramesh, and Vijay leading the charge this time in the semi-final. However, they were blown away 5-0 by Sweden in the claycourts of Gothenburg in the final.

In the 25 years since, India have not managed to scale such peaks again. Sure, there have been some memorable victories, such as Ramesh and Leander Paes engineering a 3-2 win against France in the 1993 World Cup quarter-finals, or Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna inspiring the team from 2-0 down to beat Brazil and re-enter the World Group in 2010. Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi also pumped in some much-indeed life into the dwindling Davis Cup interest in the country.

The former—scripting many a famous singles and doubles wins while playing his most recent Davis Cup tie in March 2020—holds the record for most doubles victories (45) and sits fourth in the overall win list by a player (93). “Paes was ranked very low in singles, but he had some top wins in singles too. That’s Davis Cup for you. You just never know,” Mukerjea said.

The odd stunning victory and individual records notwithstanding, India haven’t been able to patch together consistent results in the tournament of late, struggling to stay afloat in the World Group stage. The last time an Indian singles player beat a higher-ranked opponent in the Davis Cup was in 2015 when Somdev Devvarman, then ranked 164 then, beat 40th-ranked Czech Jiri Vesely. In the last three years, India have only beaten Pakistan and China.

“It’s not the fact that we’re failing, it’s how we’re failing that is worrisome,” Devvarman had said in a chat.

The Davis Cup itself has undergone a transformation, its format altered and duration trimmed to two days comprising three-set matches instead of the standard five. “I don’t like it,” Mukerjea said. “But players don’t seem to have the time to play three days nowadays.”

Incidentally, Mukerjea reckons time is what is needed for India to begin the march towards the upper levels of Davis Cup once again, trying to replicate success stories of yore.

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