The Indian Aces will look to kick off their IPTL title defense on a winning note when they take on home team Japan Warriors in the second match at the Kobe World Hall on Wednesday. One year after their memorable win, the Aces look to pack a punch once again, though they have a few changes this time.
(For tickets to the Indian Aces matches, click here).
14-time Slam champion Rafael Nadal replaces his long-time rival Roger Federer as the team’s icon player and will World No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska for company as the leading women’s singles player. However, both Nadal and Radwanska are unavailable for the Aces’ opening match and they have to depend on their other team members to deliver the win.
IPTL debutants, Japan Warriors, meanwhile, will be spearheaded by the home favourite and World No. 8 Kei Nishikori. They also have former World No. 1 Maria Sharapova in their ranks.
Will the absence of their top singles players hurt the Aces’ chances? We take a look at how the sets might pan out:
Men’s singles: Ivan Dodig vs Kei Nishikori (probable)
The Kobe World Hall will be treated to a fabulous contrast of styles in this contest. The serve-and-volleying Dodig never fails to entertain with his delicate drop shots and big serves. And crowd-favourite Kei Nishikori is one of the fastest players on the Tour, known for his graceful backhand and sublime footwork.
When two such players meet, it is bound to produce some thoroughly entertaining tennis!
They have crossed swords five times on the ATP Tour – with the Japanese triumphing in four matches and Dodig winning just one.
On paper, that should give an edge to the World No. 8 Nishikori, who is coming into the IPTL in a rich vein of form. However, Dodig would represent a unique challenge with his throwback style, and Nishikori would need to keep that in mind to help his team get off to a good start.
Men’s doubles: Bopanna/Monfils vs Paes/Nishikori (probable)
This set will generate plenty of Indian interest as two of India’s finest doubles players – Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes – will go up against each other. In terms of form and IPTL experience, it is the 35-year-old Bopanna who should have the advantage over his 42-year-old compatriot, an IPTL debutant this year.
The doubles World No. 9 was one of the architects of the Indian Aces’ glorious title run in 2014 and he comes this year with a confidence-boosting performance at the ATP World Tour Finals where he reached the summit clash. The Indian star should be pretty upbeat about the Aces’ chances as he has the supremely talented Frenchman Gael Monfils as his partner.
On the other hand, while 17-time Slam champion Leander managed to excel in mixed doubles this season, he had a barren run in men’s doubles at the Grand Slams, with his sole title win coming in Auckland. Nishikori, meanwhile, is more known for his singles prowess than his doubles skills, even though he does have some nifty hand skills he can rely on.
But never count out the evergreen Leander Paes and his magical volleys. It will need only one spark to ignite the competitive fire burning inside the 42-year-old legend, and that is something none of his opponents look forward to.
Mixed doubles: Mirza/Bopanna vs Paes/Sharapova (probable)
This pits two sides, three of whose players are accomplished Indian doubles experts and the fourth one is an all-time singles great. While the women’s doubles World No. 1 Sania Mirza will team up with Rohan Bopanna for the Indian Aces, Leander Paes will be representing the Japan Warriors, alongside Maria Sharapova.
Last year, Bopanna’s booming serve complemented Sania’s lethal forehands perfectly and took the Aces to the title in the inaugural IPTL season. Expectations should be even higher this time from this duo, especially after both finished their respective seasons in impressive fashion.
With 10 titles in 2015, including the coveted Wimbledon and US Open crowns, Mirza’s confidence should be sky-high and she would be raring to go. One year after the IPTL win, the 29-year-old is now a much-improved player who has practically owned the WTA Tour this season, along with her regular partner Martina Hingis. With the ninth ranked Bopanna for company, this pair should be every other team’s nightmare!
Having said that, Leander Paes’ smart reflexes and deft touches are always tough to counter. One of the most revered exponents of doubles, the Indian legend has nine mixed doubles Slams in his résumé and will surely aim to showcase his full repertoire of shots on the court.
And while Sharapova's net skills may be a little suspect, her power and precision can turn any match on its head – whether in singles or doubles. More significantly though, her partnership with Paes would be something that fans all over the world would be eagerly anticipating – that's one match made in
Legends’ singles: Fabrice Santoro vs Marat Safin
How about seeing Fabrice Santoro conjuring up some of his amazing skill against the tremendous power and pace of Marat Safin? Such a match-up certainly transports us back to the late 1990s and early 2000s.
IPTL gives us a chance to relive this rivalry as the two tennis icons clash with each other in the legends’ showdown. With the former World No. 1 and two-time Slam champion Marat Safin having been totally away from the tennis world since his retirement, this contest is eagerly awaited.
However, the Russian would not like the fact he has a 2-7 losing head-to-head record against the Frenchman and even in IPTL, Santoro is more experienced, having played last year as well. No matter which way it goes, fans will have their money’s worth of some dazzling strokes, nifty volleys and perhaps, if they are lucky, a few Safin racquet smashes too!
Women’s singles: Samantha Stosur vs Maria Sharapova (probable)
With WTA Finals champion Agnieszka Radwanska opting out of the Kobe and Manila legs due to injury, Samantha Stosur has been drafted into the Aces squad. But that's not exactly great news for the visitors, since Stosur's opponent, Maria Sharapova, has completely dominated their rivalry on the WTA tour.
Sharapova leads the big-serving Stosur 15-2 in the head-to-head record, and has always brought out her best tennis when faced with the Australian's topspin groundstrokes and kick serves. Playing her first IPTL match in Japan (the Russian was part of the Manila team last year), Sharapova will be looking to continue her dominance against Stosur and put on a great first impression in front of the home fans.
But as gritty as the five-time Grand Slam champion is, Stosur is certainly capable of matching her off the ground with her big shots. If she manages to keep a steady head, this match could produce some fireworks, the lopsided head-to-head notwithstanding.
Note: The singles and doubles match-ups are as per our assumptions for the most obvious player combinations. They are subject to change if one or more of the players are unavailable from either team, or if the team managements decide to change the combinations based on current form.Published 02 Dec 2015, 13:38 IST