Paes' bid suffers a jolt

Paes' bid suffers a jolt

Leander Paes’ ambition to conjure maximum Davis Cup doubles wins will have to wait. The Indian legend, partnering Vishnu Vardhan, fell 6-3, 3-6, 6-7(6), 3-6 to the superior New Zealand pairing of Michael Venus and Artem Sitak, keeping the Asia-Oceania Group 1 tie alive at the Balewadi Sports Complex on Saturday.

India, who were leading 2-0, could have wrapped up the tie by winning the doubles. They will now have another opportunity through Sunday’s two reverse singles matches, where Ramkumar Ramanthan will play Finn Tearney and Yuki Bhambri takes on Jose Statham.

From the beginning, the tie revolved around Paes. Be it his rumoured retirement or the opportunity to surpass Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli, with whom he is tied for 42 doubles wins, Paes attracted spotlight. Neither took place during this tie. He, though, was felicitated before the match in presence of former India Davis Cuppers, along with the outgoing captain Anand Amritraj.

The atmosphere was just right for an ideal Davis Cup setting, with an outpouring of national fervor and admiration for Paes apparent everywhere. Several in the stands sported sponsored T-shirts flaunting “Leander Army.” 

The tennis loving region, witnessing a Davis Cup tie after 43 years, lapped every bit of the exciting action that lasted two hours and 43 minutes. The stadium was packed to the rafters.

Paes, appearing in his 55th tie, wasn’t at his best, but there were moments where his vintage magic left everyone mesmerised. Vishnu, stepping in to partner him at the last minute, played his heart out in a vibrant outing, cleverly mixing his serves, and providing the right treatment to the volleys. Many a time, he carried the Indian combination with his inspired performance. However, he erred with his returns on crucial points.

Venus and Sitak, both top-60 doubles players, promised a tough fight from the outset. They were lightning fast with their volleys, showed superb court-craft, and whipped out power-packed groundstrokes to get the better of the Indians.

The hosts, though, were off to a rousing start with Paes stretching out for a backhand volley winner for a break point in the sixth game and following it up with a forehand cross court winner. Vishnu served out the set with an ace. 

The Indians then forced two break-points off Venus in the opening game of the second set, but against a quality work of Sitak at net, they couldn’t cash in. An erratic service game from Paes saw New Zealand break for a 3-1 lead and in just a matter of time it became a set all.

In a keenly fought third set, lasting nearly an hour, the Indians had four break-points, two each of Venus and Sitak, but couldn’t convert, stretching the set into the tie breaker. New Zealand nosed ahead riding on their second set point when Sitak provided the finishing touches with a backhand volley winner.
The visitors, with a 2-1 lead, carried the momentum with them in the fourth set, and broke Vishnu for the first time in the match to dampen Indian hopes. In no time, they carved out a 4-1 lead before Venus served out the set and the match. It dashed hopes of Paes and of the thousands, who slowly made their way out of the stands.
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