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Sport - Tennis

Will India be fourth time lucky?

By Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, MARCH 26. The Davis Cup record of Leander Paes may be spectacular, but India will try to overcome a historic hurdle when it takes on New Zealand in the Davis Cup Asia Oceania group `I' second round tie to be held in Wellington from April 5 to 7.

For the record, the likes of Vijay Amritraj, Anand Amritraj, Sashi Menon and Ramesh Krishnan have not been able to help an Indian team beat New Zealand in any of the three previous meetings.

Quite interestingly, two of those encounters in 1975 and 1978 were held in Lucknow and Delhi, when New Zealand won 3-1 and 4-1 respectively, thanks to the efforts of Brian Fairlie, Onny Parun, Chris Lewis and Russell Simpson. India had put up a better fight in Auckland in 1976 when it went down 2-3, as Vijay won both his matches.

However, the Indian fans can take heart from the fact that Ramesh Krishnan had won the first ATP Tour event held in Wellington in 1988. He had also won another tournament in Auckland the following year.

Of course, Ramesh will only be the non-playing captain this time, trying to play his cards as best as he can and rub some winning touch on the Indian team. It will be up to Leander Paes with the support of Mahesh Bhupathi, Harsh Mankad, Prahlad Srinath and Rohan Bopanna to take India past the Kiwis.

A win will fetch a berth in the World Group qualifying round against one of the first round losers from the World Group Australia, Brazil, Britain, Germany, Morocco, The Netherlands, Slovak Republic and Switzerland.

The leading Kiwi players, Daniel Wilman and Mark Nielsen may have better singles ranking of 352 and 396 respectively, as compared to 441 for Leander Paes, 576 for Rohan Bopanna, 618 for Prahlad Srinath and 750 for Harsh Mankad. However, the fact that Leander and Mahesh Bhupathi have earned about $5.5 million between them in the professional world, as compared to about two lakh dollars of the entire Kiwi team should put things in right perspective. There is no better indicator for experience in the professional world, than the prize money. Never mind whether it is from singles or doubles.

The cold and windy weather may be to the advantage of the Kiwis, but Leander and company had handled icy conditions in China last season.

The lack of singles exposure, especially for Leander may be a big concern for the Indian camp, as the Kiwis have been working their form up for the tie.

The 24-year-old Mark Nielsen had beaten the sixth-seeded Andreas Vinciguerra in the first of the Heineken Open in Auckland, and had recently made two finals in the Futures circuit back home, apart from making the quarterfinals of the $25,000 Challenger.

Only Prahlad Srinath and Rohan Bopanna have been stringing some good singles wins recently from among the Indian squad in the Futures tournaments. Yet, both may not get to play the singles matches against the Kiwis, as the arduous task of handling Davis Cup pressure may be left to Leander and Harsh, who won all their matches against Lebanon with ease.

Though Leander and Mahesh have been playing with different partners recently, the duo should be good enough to handle Daniel Wilman and Alistair Hunt, who had fetched the crucial doubles win in New Zealand's 3-2 victory over Indonesia in the zonal first round tie in February.

It may be noted that Mahesh in partnership with Jeff Tarango of USA had beaten Wilman and Hunt 6-4, 6-4 on way to the semifinals of the Tour event in Auckland recently. All said, the fortunes of the Indian team would continue to depend on Leander's form. The 28-year-old, who wields a magic wand in Davis Cup play, and has subdued many a top-10 player, will once again hold the key to India's progress.

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