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Experience gives India edge against Japan

April 10, 2008 19:21 IST

The Indian Davis Cup team is at interesting crossroads. On one hand is the chance to win the tie against Japan and give themselves another shot at the World Group, the elite league they haven't been able to break into for the last 10 years, while on the other is the obvious rift in the team, which has threatened to tear the unit apart completely.

But, curiously, the whole finger-pointing and cross-firing between the two camps seems to have given the players something to fight for.

If Rohan Bopanna, who comes into the tie with a minor injury worry, and Prakash Amritraj are able to get the better of their higher-ranked Japanese opponents, not only will India stand to gain, but it will also strengthen their case for Leander Paes's ouster from the helm. Their failure could mean a complete breakdown in the team, in which they are the key singles players, and the stand they so vehemently took a few weeks ago.

Though the cracks in the team are evident, and the players, thankfully, are not even trying to put on a face, there is a certain intent and intensity to the whole exercise. The players have put in the hard yards, with or without each other, and looked sharp during their final practice session on the DLTA main court.

"The practice, the match-ups everything is done, now it's time we get down to playing," declared captain Leander Paes at the draw ceremony in New Delhi on Thursday morning.

Bopanna, who has been laid low by a knee inflammation, played a full session with a heavily strapped knee and could suffer Friday morning blues as he has been drawn to start the tie against Japan's debutant, and tennis' latest wonderboy, Kei Nishikori. Amritraj will play the second singles on Friday against Go Soeda.

While Nishikori and Japan's No 2 Soeda, ranked 118 and 156 on the ATP charts respectively, are well ahead of the Indians -- Amritraj is world No 261 while Bopanna is placed at 326 -- the experience of the hosts can swing the tie their way.

"Experience does count a lot in Davis Cup matches," said Paes. "But at the same time we cannot forget that they have two very good singles players. Nishikori has been in excellent form in the past few weeks and he must have taken back a lot of confidence from his win against James Blake at Delray Beach. Whatever they come up with, we got to be ready to play."

India have a certain edge over the visiting team in the doubles, but Paes, who will be partnering Bhupathi for the first time since they won the 2006 Asian Games gold in Doha, said nothing could be taken for granted.

"(Takao) Suzuki and (Satoshi) Iwabuchi are an accomplished team; they won the Tokyo event last year. But we have also won Grand Slams, many of those, we can't discount that, and are obviously confident of doing well but in Davis Cup you can never say."

It is no secret that the Indian weather and the courts in New Delhi are always the trickiest enemies for visiting teams. While the heat and humidity hasn't gone through the roof in the capital so far, the uneven bounce on the playing surface caused a few problems for the Japanese players during their one-hour session on the main court.

"We can expect this; it's not Wimbledon," smiled Japan's most experienced Davis Cupper Suzuki, who has been put on doubles duty, as of now. "The bounce is a little bit up and down but it will be the same for the Indians also."

Nishikori, who will be confronting grass after a gap of three years, hoped that he would quickly adjust to the conditions in his opening match.

The sharp contrast in the team atmospheres also made a telling picture on the eve of the tie. While the Indian team enters, wanders and leaves in groups, the Japanese looked like a strong unit despite being a much bigger contingent. The cheerful and soft-spoken lot that they are, they startled onlookers when the entire team got together in a huddle and gave a war-cry.

"What are our chances? We came here for winning this tie," said the non-playing Japanese captain Eiji Takeuchi.

Though Japan will start as favourites in this tie, India have reason to count on their home advantage. And with a lot more than just the result of the tie at stake, added aggression from the Indian boys on their favourite surface would help.

Deepti Patwardhan in Delhi