Davis Cup 2021: India vs Finland — Pressure on Ramkumar, Prajnesh in tricky tie
The Indian tennis team for Davis Cup have a tough job on their hands as they will go up against a higher-ranked Finland team in the World Group Qualifiers.
Assembling after 2020, India will resume their Davis Cup journey as they have a Scandinavian assignment on their hands with a tie against Finland on the cards. Having gone down to Croatia in the World Group Qualifiers in March 2020, the Indian team comprising seasoned players will take on Finland in the World Group I first round tie at Espoo Metro Areena, Finland.
Finland might not sound intimidating as a team as it isn't a regular tennis powerhouse nation but the Indian team cannot take this Scandinavian challenge lightly as the Finnish side have higher-ranked players on their half.
This is not to undermine the potential of the Indian squad who are eager to get back to their winning ways on the Davis Cup circuit. For India, it will be Prajnesh Gunneswaran (No. 165) and Ramkumar Ramathan (No. 187) who will have to lead from the front in the singles in the absence of Olympic-returned Sumit Nagal (No. 186). In place of Nagal, who was participating in a Challenger in Poland, Saketh Myneni has stepped into the team.
"We are missing Sumit as he would have given us more options if we wanted to switch players around. Our second singles player is ranked higher. So, it is pretty even. Doubles will be a very important match and could decide this tie, depending on the first day's results," said coach Zeeshan Ali to The Hindu in an interview.
The Finnish side might have a slight edge as they have Emil Ruusuvuori on their side as he is ranked as the World No. 74. In fact, Ruusuvuori, the Finnish No. 1 locked horns with Prajnesh at the ATP 500 event in Washington recently and handed the Indian No. 1 a loss in the Round of 64 match.
Ahead of the crucial tie, Prajnesh who is most likely slated to go up against Otto Virtanen (No. 419), it is important that the Indian strikes the right notes and is in a sharp form. Having defeated higher-ranked players earlier in his life Prajnesh needs to bring his best form to the table.
"Matches against good players are always close if I'm playing well. I have won matches against good players being in the lead and I have also lost matches being in the lead. That's just the way they go," Prajnesh told PTI.
Consistency will be key for the Indian side and Prajnesh who sometimes fails to capitalise in the key moments needs to ensure there is no room for such error and he does not cave into the pressure. "Matches which are closely fought can go either way. There is no pressure of playing for India that influences me...Sometimes there's more pressure, other times that's less. Again, just depends on how well I cope on that particular day," the Chennai-born left-hander added.
Meanwhile, Ramkumar Ramanathan will be the first one to go up on Friday and most likely, it will be Emil Ruusovuouri's challenge that will await the India No. 3 player. It will be upto Ramanathan again to find his form, although Zeeshan Ali has attested that he is timing the ball well, Ramanathan needs to put his best foot forward against the World No. 74. Having shown talent and class against 2014 US Open Champion Marin Cilic in the tie against Croatia, Ramanathan will need to be on a similar rampage against Ruusuvuori.
If Ramanathan manages to win against the hosts and gets India on the board this will take off the steam from the rest of the players. Starting with a win will be important as it can dictate the momentum of the rest of the tie. Needless to say, it will be Prajnesh and Ramkumar who will have the maximum pressure on them to get India's place secured for the Qualifiers next year.
On the doubles front, India is at par with the Finnish team. Rohan Bopanna (No. 44) and Divij Sharan (No. 86) will be contesting the doubles for India while the Finland side has Henri Kontinen (No. 46) and Harri Heliovaara (No. 76). Bopanna has been on a good run, having reached the Round of 16 stages of the US Open 2021 before falling to the eventual champions, Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury.
That feeling when you see a friend: @rohanbopanna & Jarkko Nieminen!— Suomen Tennisliitto (@tennisfi) September 14, 2021
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🇫🇮Nieminen/Bopanna🇮🇳 reached ATP final in San Jose 2009. On the way they won the legendary Bryan brothers before losing the final to Haas/Stepanek. @DavisCup @AITA__Tennis #Throwback pic.twitter.com/3UoMCm7f34
The doubles tie will be crucial, both Zeeshan Ali as well as Rohit Rajpal agrees but with Rohan Bopanna and his vast experience at India's expense, a good fight can be expected in this match of equals. It remains to be seen who Bopanna partners with eventually - Saketh Myneni or Divij Sharan, both very familiar partners for the 41-year-old.
Low-bounce to act as advantage for Indians
Indian players were vary about the pace of the court they'd have to play on at Espoo, Finland. Having expected fast, hard courts which could affect the game of the players, the Indian players were in for a surprise when they discovered the balls weren't bouncing as much as they expected it to when they practised on the match courts.
Making things favourable for Indians, the tennis court has been laid out on an ice hockey stadium for a makeshift affair to host the Davis Cup tie at Espoo.
"What they have done is that they have pulled the ice out and put a wooden plank and laid the court over it, so the bounce is low that suits us but at the same time the slowness of the court does not suit us," Rohit Rajpal informed the PTI.
@DavisCup World Group I - 🇫🇮 🆚 🇮🇳— All India Tennis Association (@AITA__Tennis) September 15, 2021
Glimpses from #TeamIndia's practice session today at the @MetroAreena in #Finland.#FININD 🇫🇮🇮🇳 #DavisCup #AITATennis 🇮🇳🎾 #BleedBlue
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Analysing the condition of the court, Rajpal noted, "The Europeans mostly play on clay courts which are slower, so they like to rally a lot and that is their strength. Our Indian players do not do that but low bounce will certainly benefit us and our strategy will revolve around that," mentioning what their course of action will be.
Developing their strategy around the bounce and spin the ball will experience at the Espoo Metro Areena, Rajpal feels that the conditions can be advantageous for Ramkumar and Prajnesh - the two main players responsible in the singles matches. "We can chip and charge, our players do that often. Both Ramkumar and Prajnesh hit flat and for that, the low bounce will be pretty helpful. You can't do that on high bounce courts," Rajpal etched out, highlighting the boon of the low bounce.
Against Finland, India's chances are fair and square with the tie having the potential to go either way. A lot will come down to how the players perform on the given day, how they adapt to situations and improvise the shots. The Finnish side will obviously have the home advantage but the low bounce will help the Indian cause.
"On paper they are a better ranked team than us but this is Davis Cup, I say it is 50-50. It depends on how things pan out on the first day as well. To have a 1-1 score on day one is important for us. The doubles is going to be a crucial match for both sides," Rajpal reasserted, in tune with coach Zeeshan Ali.
Here's the full squad for Davis Cup India-Finland tie:
INDIA: Rohit Rajpal (non-playing Captain), Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Saketh Myneni, Rohan Bopanna, Divij Sharan
FINLAND: Jarkko Nieminen (non-playing Captain), Emil Ruusuvuori, Otto Virtanen, Patrik Niklas-Salminen, Harri Heliovaara, Henri Kontinen