Mahesh Bhupathi, who takes over from Anand Amritraj, will lead the Indian Davis Cup side against Uzbekistan in his first outing as captain in his hometown, Bengaluru from April 7-9. The tie was ratified by the International Tennis Federation on Thursday. It will be the third consecutive evening tie to be staged in India. The singles contests will get underway at 3 pm while the doubles rubber will be played at 6 pm.
The hard court, high-altitude setting which Bangalore offers was a preferred choice among Indian players, whose plans will largely hinge on unsettling Denis Istomin (world rank 76). Earlier this month, Istomin took the court on all three days of the tie to help his side power past South Korea in a crucial away win. The 30 year-old Uzbek, who's been a journeyman in the men's circuit through the most part of his career so far, pulled off a spectacular upset by beating 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic in the second round of the Australian Open earlier this year.
His brand of tennis - punitively flat groundstrokes and ability to accelerate down-the-line shots by a great measure - could be under duress with the ball flying through the air at a much faster rate than usual. Unlike most other parts of the country which would be in the grips of unforgiving summer then, conditions in the city would be a lot less harsher. Bengaluru last hosted a Davis Cup tie in 2014, a World Group playoff match, which India went on to lose 2-3 against Serbia. In the previous Asia/Oceania Group 1 tie played in Pune earlier this month, India beat New Zealand 4-1.
It is learnt that Bhupathi has mooted the idea of members of the side steering clear from any media interaction in the lead-up to the tie, one that has found favour with the AITA. It could be seen as a possible pre-emptive measure to quell any talk following the impending team selection slated on March 6.
Team selection has been a contentious issue in the recent past with Rohan Bopanna's omission from the team for the previous tie - despite being the highest-ranked Indian player - kicking up quite a storm. India's current top-placed singles plaer Saketh Myneni (ranked 228) had limped off the court injured during practice on the eve of the draw ceremony in the tie against New Zealand, which forced him to sit out. His availability for the Uzbek tie too appears to be doubtful.
Apart from Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan in the singles, Prajnesh Gunneswaran could be an interesting pick given that he held three match points against Istomin in the Asia-Pacific wildcard playoffs for the Australian Open this year. Paes - who along with partner Guillermo Garcia-Lopez retired from their Round of 16 match at the Memphis Open on Thursday - is still chasing the seemingly-elusive record for the most number of Davis Cup doubles wins, having lost the rubber in both previous ties - against Spain and New Zealand.
If India wins this tie, it would find itself in September's World Group playoffs - a stage which the country has reached each time in the last three years under Amritraj's captaincy, only to slip back into the zonal competition. It's been six years since India last made the World Group. A goal that Bhupathi could well pick for himself.