India’s depleted Davis Cup squad will bank on the consistency of Prajnesh Gunneswaran to pull the side through when it takes on a shorn-of-star-power Serbia in the World Group Play-off tie here from Friday.
Recently-crowned US Open champion Novak Djokovic’s decision to opt out of the play-offs along with world number 33 Filip Krajinovic has raised hopes of an equal contest between the two teams.
Playing away is still is an enormous task for the Indian team, which has landed here without its top singles player Yuki Bhambri and Asian Games men’s doubles gold medallist Divij Sharan.
But the combined experience of the Indian players in Davis Cup is 43 ties as compared to just 14 of the line-up in the home side, something which the visitors would look to exploit.
In the absence of an injured Yuki, a lot would depend on how the left-handed Prajnesh, who won a singles bronze medal at the Asian Games, performs.
The 28-year-old won the deciding fifth rubber against rising Chinese star Yibing Wu to help India reach the World Group Play-off stage for the fifth straight year.
Prajnesh has shown the mental strength to soak in the pressure and he is confident going into the tie which will be played indoors on clay courts.
“Novak is not playing, so everyone else is beatable if we play well. It will be tough certainly. But we have a chance. We need to take the opportunities we get,” Prajnesh told PTI.
Ramkumar Ramanathan, ranked 135, has pulled off some big wins in the last 12 months but consistency has always been his bane.
In Jakarta, he lost to a player who was ranked below 400.
For Serbia, Dusan Lajovic, who stunned US Open finalist and world No. 4 Juan Martin del Potro at the Madrid Masters, will lead the challenge and Ramkumar has beaten the world number 56 in the past.
It was in the qualifying event of the Cincinnati Masters last year. But Lajovic is on song right now and is enjoying the best phase of his career.
Laslo Djere, ranked 86, is the second singles player for the hosts and he lacks experience in Davis Cup, having appeared in just two ties before this.
The rest of the three players in the Serbian side — Pedja Krstin (1), Nikola Milojevic (1) and Danilo Petrovic (0) — have played two ties between them.
“Our chances remain the same. After Novak pulled out, we believe we have a chance,” said India’s non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi.
Rohan Bopanna will be the most experienced player on the courts with 29 ties under his belt.
The 38-year-old will have to use his experience to ensure that India get that doubles point on Saturday. He and N Sriram Balaji played well against Uzbekistan last year.
About the indoor conditions, India’s coach Zeeshan Ali said, “It’s very different.”
“The good thing being that quality of tennis better and there is no outside factor like sun or wind. Indoor clay is a bit unusual for us as there are hardly any tournaments our players play in those conditions. It’s a little more noisy as the sound of the ball being hit vibrates if it’s not a big stadium.”
Prajnesh said the conditions would suit them. “Indoor is less challenging, it’s good for us.”
India have not beaten Serbia since 1927 when the hosts were called Yugoslavia and there is a possibility that this statistic might change come Sunday.
If that happens, India will enter the World Group for the first time since 2011 when it had lost to Serbia in the first round of the elite 16-nation event.
In the last four years, India lost at the same stage to Serbia (2014), Spain (2015), Czech Republic (2016) and Canada (2017).