In a sport where the major titles are individual, Davis Cup is an aberration. It is the premier international tournament in men’s tennis. Played in knockout format between teams of players from competing countries, it is a prestigious event that always produces stunning results and intense tennis.
No wonder it is often described as the ‘World Cup of Tennis’. Though it began in 1900 as a contest between the United States of America & Great Britain, it involves 130 countries as of 2016.
Predictably, USA is the most successful country in the tournament, winning it 32 times and finishing 2nd 29 times. Australia & Great Britain follow the USA on the honour roll. Andy Murray-led Great Britain are also the defending champions.
Though India has not won the prestigious tournament yet, the country has always come up with strong performances and have finished as runners-up thrice. This, despite being unable to boast top-ranked singles players.
In fact, India displayed its capability in its debut appearance in 1921. Powered by performances from Mohammed Sleem, Fayzee brothers and Lewis Deane, India surprised France 4-1 in Paris to reach the semifinals of the International Lawn Tennis Challenge (the earlier name of Davis Cup) before being blanked by Japan who won the event.
Strong performances in the initial years
India came up with noteworthy victories in the tournament between 1921-1929, defeating the likes of France, Romania, Holland, Belgium. Spain and Greece – all of them strong teams with top-ranked players – among others.
The inspirational performances from Cotah Ramaswamy and Krishna Prasad apart from the above-mentioned players brought laurels to the country. India regularly won the Zonal finals in the 1960s and played the Inter-Zonal finals during the 1960s.
India reached its first final in 1966 which is widely considered its best ever result in the tournament. Powered by the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaideep Mukherjea, India beat Brazil 3-2 in the Inter-Zonal Final at Kolkata to qualify for the Challenge Round. The highlight of that victory was Ramanathan Krishnan’s win over world No.12 Thomas Koch. Though the Challenge final was lost 1-4 to Australia, Krishnan and Mukherjea managed to beat the 1965 Wimbledon champions Newcombe and Roche in the doubles.
‘Apartheid’ denies India !
India next reached the final of the event in 1974 when Anand Amritraj and Vijay Amritraj were at the top of their games. The brothers were an awesome doubles pair and with Jasjit Singh, India was a force to be reckoned with. India overpowered the likes of Australia (3-2, Zonal final) and USSR (3-1, Inter-Zonal final) to reach the World Group final where they were slated to face South Africa. India had a high chance of winning its first ever Davis Cup title but refused to play their opponent South Africa, in protest of the Apartheid - racist colonial rule - practices prevailing in the country. Subsequently, India forfeited the tie to their opponents.
Next, India reached their 3rd and last final to date in 1987. Ramesh Krishnan was India’s flag bearer in that period and he played a pivotal role in India’s run to the summit clash. In the semifinal against Australia, in Sydney, Ramesh Krishnan beat Wally Masur in the crucial 5th match to clinch the tie in India’s favour 3-2. The final was against Sweden, which boasted the likes of Mats Wilander and Anders Jarryd. India were blanked 5-0 by the strong Swedes but it would not belittle India’s stunning campaign.
Other notable results
Next notable campaign by India in the Davis Cup came in 1993 when it reached the semifinals, thanks to exceptional performances by Ramesh Krishnan and a young Leander Paes. India defeated France 3-2 before falling foul of Australia in the semifinals. En route to a 5-0 win, Wally Masur had his revenge by defeating Ramesh Krishnan in Chandigarh.
Though India failed to reach the latter stages of the tournament after 1993, they were a regular fixture in the World Group in the 90s. Leander Paes assumed the mantle of leadership and was instrumental in several key and famous wins, the most famous among them being Paes’ (then World.No.130) win over then World No.7 Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia in 1995 (India won the tie). Paes, though not a great singles player, had the knack of elevating his game while playing for India – found out first hand by Jan Siemerink in 1995 World.No.20) as India defeated Netherlands and Jiri Novak in 1997.
Paes holds the record for the most Davis Cup doubles wins with 42 victories (equal to Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy).
India has made the occasional entry into the World Group in the 21st century but have been battling to top the Asia/Oceania zonal group largely. Last year, India made it to the World Group play-offs where the Czech Republic defeated them 3-1.
India, ranked 20th in the world, will take on Spain (14th rank) from 16th September in a World Group playoff with elimination at stake. India defeated South Korea to reach this stage while Spain, with the likes of Rafael Nadal in their ranks, look to finally return to the World Group.