The last and only time India played Croatia in a Davis Cup tie, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were yet to be spoken of in the same breath. The September 1995 World Group qualifying first-round tie marked their first Davis Cup win as partners, and Paes, ranked 123rd, starred in three rubber wins out of five -- including a surprise humbling of World No. 7 and twice-Wimbledon finalist Goran Ivanisevic.
This weekend's away tie for India against two-time champions Croatia in Zagreb, too, holds the possibility of an upset.
The absence of Croatia's No. 1 player Borna Coric, due to injury, leaves 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic as Croatia's only top 50 player in the opposition line-up. Cilic is coming off a dismal season with a bunch of losses to players ranked outside the top 100. Throw in a fair count of first-round tournament exits and a ranking drop from No. 7 to No. 37, and India have the delicious hope of an upset at hand.
However, even before the teams have lined up for the anthems in their Davis Cup liveries, India have pulled off a tiny surprise. The visitors have benched their No. 1 singles player Sumit Nagal, ranked No. 127, for the opening day's rubber and have decided to pit Ramkumar Ramanathan against Cilic. "It's a little unexpected that they didn't pick their top player, Nagal," Cilic said. "But all three of their singles players are solid, they are very similar in game. I have to make sure I win both my matches, and in other single matches we are underdogs."
At 277, Croatia's second singles player, Borna Gojo, is ranked 145 spots below India's Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who will be the favourite to bring India their first point from Friday's rubber. Croatia too had a surprise up their sleeve ahead of Friday's draw ceremony, possibly one they would have hoped to avoid. One half of their top doubles pair, No. 10-ranked Ivan Dodig, had to withdraw due to an injury, bringing in No. 32-ranked Franko Skugor to partner Mate Pavic.
"Not playing Sumit was a strategy we decided to adopt going into the first day," India coach Zeeshan Ali tells ESPN. "There is a possibility that he might play the reverse singles but it's too early to say anything. As far as Cilic is concerned, we can't rule out any upsets. Anything is possible. We are hoping to log one point on the first day and then have the experience of Leander (Paes) and Rohan (Bopanna) to get us through the doubles."
Paes and Bopanna will be teaming up for the first time since the tie against China in April 2018. "Doubles is going to be very crucial for us, especially if the score on Day 1 is 1-1," Zeeshan adds. "We are a bit relieved that Dodig is not playing due to a wrist injury but that doesn't mean the Croatians are any less threatening. Rohan and Leander both have to play their A-game."
The hard indoor court of Dom Sportova in Zagreb, which the Indian team has now had more than a few days to hit on and gain grips over, is medium fast, with a low bounce and serves coming through.
India haven't had the best of fortunes so far in their encounters against higher-ranked sides, losing to Serbia (2017) and Canada (2018) to miss out on World Group qualification, and this would be their seventh attempt in as many years to get a crack into the World Group. The winning 12 nations in this weekend's qualifiers will join last year's semi-finalists -- Spain, Canada, Great Britain and Russia -- as well as wild-card nations France and Serbia at the Davis Cup Finals at La Caja Magica in Madrid on 23-29 November.
In the current Coronavirus outbreak scenario, the ties in Japan and Italy this week will be closed-door affairs, off-limits for spectators.
March 6: Borna Gojo vs Prajnesh Gunneswaran; Marin Cilic vs Ramkumar Ramanathan.
March 7: Mate Pavic & Franko Skugor vs Rohan Bopanna & Leander Paes; Marin Cilic vs Prajnesh Gunneswaran; Borna Gojo vs Ramkumar Ramanathan.