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Divij Sharan provides lone spark as India stare into uncertainty

PTI Photo/Vijay Verma

India's Davis Cup tie against Italy didn't conclude with the results the hosts were looking for, yet the contest was a significant one. While there was some uncertainty over how the new format and rules in the tournament would be perceived, the reactions from players were largely positive. Despite the defeat, there were also some positives for India, especially how Divij Sharan rose to the occasion in the doubles rubber.

Shorter matches appreciated

The rule changes in the 119-year-old Davis Cup - fewer sets, Saturday finish (instead of the earlier Sunday), and end of the home and away games in the World Finals - have been met with less than universal praise; Italy captain Corrado Barazutti likened them to tampering with a Grand Slam.

While the effects of the format change in the Finals will only be apparent once the event concludes in November, the other modifications have mostly found favour with players. While acknowledging the historicity of the tournament, Andreas Seppi, who played two singles matches, was appreciative of the fact that he, a veteran of 27 ties, wasn't so physically drained at the end of the contest.

"I liked five sets but I'm getting older now so perhaps the best-of-three sets is easier on my body," the 34-year-old Seppi said. The fact that the tie ended on a Saturday meant that he had a day to travel before getting to his next tournament which might have a Monday start.

"If I still have one day to travel I won't be so tired. In the past, you might get so tired from playing two five-set matches over two days. It would take two tournaments before you to recover."

Divij Sharan announces himself

Divij Sharan made his Davis Cup debut as a 25-year-old against New Zealand in 2012. It took him another seven years before he played his second match, against Italy.

It's clear just how much he has improved as a player - he has climbed to 40th rank in the world from 115 - and just how important his role has become for the Indian Davis Cup team. Sharan might have been the junior partner to Rohan Bopanna, who was playing his 44th Davis Cup tie, but in a must-win match for the hosts, he played a pivotal role in keeping India in the contest.

The Indian pair lost the first set and were broken in the second by Matteo Berrettini and Simone Bolleli, but held their nerve when it mattered. Sharan initiated the momentum switch in the match by beating Berettini with a volley to break Bolelli in the fourth game of the second set. While his serve, which tops out at 185kmph and averages in the mid 140s, isn't an obvious threat, Sharan was solid throughout the last two sets ensuring India could consolidate on their breaks.

Sharan and Bopanna have paired up keeping the 2020 Olympics in mind, and the former's show on Saturday suggested there's more than enough to work with.

Bhupathi's contract

Mahesh Bhupathi's contract as India's non-playing captain was officially until the end of the tie against Italy. Bhupathi had replaced Anand Amritraj as captain in April 2017, and began with a 4-1 win over Uzbekistan in Bengaluru. India however, won just one other tie under his captaincy - against China - and have failed to advance to advance to the World Group finals, which would have been the target for the team.

While it's uncertain whether Bhupathi will keep his position in the team, he came in for support from the players, who appreciated the fact that he kept in contact with them and made sure to watch their matches even when they weren't part of a Davis Cup camp.

Bhupathi for his part held out hope that he would continue to work with the team.

"All of them have their team when it comes to fitness and coaching but they love engaging in debates with me and getting my inputs," he said. "They respect me enough to take my inputs, that helps the relationship as well. There's a lot of work to be done. There's still potential especially for the singles boys. I will continue to give my feedback."

Preparing for the quiet days

The defeat to Italy meant that India lost the chance to advance to the 18-team World finals in November and will instead return to playing the zonal stages against Asian teams.

According to coach Zeeshan Ali, the same rule changes that favoured India against Italy might now hamper them against these countries.

"Three-set matches were good for us because we were the weaker team against Italy. That gave us as good a chance against them. When we play the Asian level, it won't be as good for us," Zeeshan said.

"We are the stronger team here. That's because those players aren't comfortable playing five-set matches as we are. They won't be used to playing five-set matches so it's going to help them."

Zeeshan also fears that even if India make it to the World Finals at some point in the future, there's little chance of seeing high quality players on Indian courts.

"We got to see some of the biggest names in tennis play in India because of the Davis Cup. Because of the end of the home and away format in the Finals, it's unlikely that we will get to see any of these players again."