“In tennis, you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement,” Andre Agassi.
In an individual sport, it is rare to find a team’s tournament with global appeal. In tennis, the sport which banks mostly on the Grand Slam tournaments for its branding, Davis Cup rescues the country-based team version.
On winning the cup in 2015, the former world number 1 had said, “It’s obviously an amazing feeling. I imagine it will take a few days before it really sinks in. But I probably haven’t been as emotional as that after a match that I’ve won. I’ve been pretty upset having lost matches before, but I’d say that’s probably the most emotional I’ve been after a win.” This quote by Andy Murray further implies the importance of the Cup in the life of a tennis player.
The only team tournament in the world to have survived a 100 years, Davis Cup started in 1900 as a challenge between the US and Great Britain. Today it has over 135 nations competing.
In a country where people breathe cricket and get glued once every four years to watch the national hockey team perform at the Olympics, tennis often takes a backseat. The names Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal comes closest to people knowing about the sport. Sania Mirza’s success though has instigated some knowledge and association with the racquetball game among Indians.
India’s association with “the World Cup of Tennis” started in 1921 when they first participated in the tournament. In their very first attempt, India reached to the semifinals of the tournament, defeating France on the way. At the semi-finals, India were humbled by Japan. In the coming decade, the team went on to beat strong tennis playing nations like the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Greece.
India, though, are yet to win a title at Davis Cup, have been at the doors knocking, thrice.
1966 – Lost to Roy Emerson’s Australia
The team led by India’s most successful Grand Slam singles tennis player, Ramanathan Krishnan, became the Eastern Zone champions. In the inter-zonal leg of the tournament, India whitewashed the likes of Iran, Sri Lanka(then Ceylon) and later defeated Japan to reach the final eight. India conquered West Germany and Brazil to earn themselves the ticket to play against the then reigning champions, Australia, in the finals.
As Australia had already won the tournament 13 out of the last 16 times and were the runners-up on the other three occasions, the championship match was always going to be the toughest one for India in the tournament.
The team from Down Under had the services of renowned players like Roy Emerson(only men’s player with Career Grand Slams in both, singles and doubles) and Fred Stolle(1965 French Open winner). They proved to be too experienced for the Indian contingent, as India lost the game 4-1, with their sole win coming in the men’s doubles matchup.
1974 – The best shot India had at the Davis Cup
The 1974 version of Davis Cup is arguably considered India’s closest attempt at winning the tournament.
Vijay and Anand Amritraj’ India famously beat the tournament’s second most successful team till date, Australia. India then went on to register a win over the Soviet Union and entered the final for the second time. With neither the USA nor Australia in the finals for the first time in 38 years, the Indian dream was alive. South Africa, the other finalist, humiliated Italy 4-1 in the semis.
What happened next is a memorable final that never took place. The Indian government, in a protest to South Africa’s apartheid policy, boycotted the final. The South African players without the need of playing the final, unenthusiastically, accepted the Davis Cup of 74′.
1987 – 3rd time close, 3rd time not close enough
In the first round of the World Group, despite Ramesh Krishnan’s five-set loss against Martin Jaite, India toppled Argentina to enter the Quarter Finals, where they blanked Israel. In the Semis, India were once again pitted against the Aussies. With Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan winning 3 of the 4 single ties, India were set to play Sweden in the Finals. The last Davis Cup final that India played, they were at the receiving end of a heavy 5-0 defeat.
Since then, Indian men’s tennis team have been in and out of the World Group. Over the years players like Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna, Yuki Bhambri, Somdev Devvarman have provided hope. But there is still a lack of fervour for the sport amongst the countrymen.
The way forward
Currently ranked at 20th in the world, there is a lot that the Indian government has to do for the country to ever have a shot at one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments. The sports federations need to spread awareness about the game and groom the youngsters if they ever want to reproduce the glories of the past or even better, better them.