Pune: The Indian players may not be formidable on grass but playing Italy on that surface will give the hosts a psychological advantage, reckons Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali.
To qualify for the inaugural 24-team Davis Cup Finals, India need to beat Italy which boasts four top-100 players, led by world number 13 Fabio Fognini.
The Italians, who are superior on hard and clay courts, might struggle on grass and that is the reason why the Indian team management has asked for a tie at South Club in Kolkata.
“Playing on clay or hard is going to be difficult. The surface on which we have the best chance against them is grass. It is not about whether our players are good on grass or not, but they are better against them playing on grass than on clay or hard,” said Zeeshan on the sidelines of Pune Challenger tournament.
The tie will be held on February 1 and 2 and the winners will play the Finals in November in Madrid.
When reasoned that better players can adjust better to the conditions, Zeeshan said, “If you look at someone like Fognini, I agree. A guy who is World No. 13 knows how to play on all surfaces. Otherwise he wouldn’t be No. 13. But if you look at other players, they don’t have that much experience playing on grass.”
The last time India hosted a tie on grass was in 2016 against Korea in Chandigarh, winning 4-1.
Yuki Bhambri, Ramkumar Ramanathan are more comfortable on hard courts while Prajnesh Gunneswaran is a solid player on clay too.
“Now, all our players also don’t play on grass. Having said that Ram won in Newport (he made the final). Psychologically it makes a difference,” said Zeeshan.
“Playing on grass doesn’t mean we will win for sure, or that they don’t know how to play on grass. It’s just that we feel that we have a better chance on grass. Grass is the one, among the three surfaces, that gives us the best chance of upsetting a team like Italy.
“We don’t have players like Vijay Amritraj or Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi who played a lot on grass and knew how to play.”
Zeeshan said the new format of having six players in the squad, playing three-set matches over two days works in India’s favour.
“It gives us the opportunity of fielding a specialist doubles team. India which has four or five players in the top-100 in doubles, we were always struggling with combinations, because we wanted to play three singles players and so one singles player playing doubles.”
Asked specifically if Paes, who has been India’s best player on grass, will be considered, Zeeshan did not give a clear answer.
“We are not ruling out anybody. The match is still two and a half months away. The selection committee will meet and choose the team at that point in time.”
Talking about Yuki, whose progress has again been halted due to a knee injury, Zeeshan said it was “unfortunate”.
“He was not able to capitalise on the kind of tennis he was playing. The way he was playing it looked like he would be top-50 very soon. It’s just that it happens to Yuki more often than others. That’s the sad part.”
He was also not happy with how Ramkumar has fared in the 2018 season.
“He has had some amazing results, but as far as consistency is concerned, which is needed to break into top-50 or 100 is somehow lacking, which I think although he has the game and ability, he has not been able to break into the top-100.”
The India coach spoke highly of Prajnesh, who is in form of his life, having won two Challenger titles this year, making him India’s number one singles player.
“After the (Davis Cup) match he had against China, his confidence is at a completely different level right now. He is physically much stronger, looking much leaner. The biggest difference is that he understands his game much better than he did six-seven months ago.”
“The good thing is he is not defending any points till the French Open. So, for the first four-five months of the year, it’s only going to keep going up now. So he is in a very good place now, playing top class tennis.”
When asked if his success can make some impact in Indian tennis, Zeeshan made it clear that unless India produces a singles Grand Slam champion, it will remain more or less the same.
“Sania Mirza made a huge difference to Indian tennis. Prajnesh is a damn good player, but so far it’s all individual success. If we are looking at an overall transformation of Indian tennis, we need to have a Grand Slam winner. Grand Slams are a different ball game. He is very close to it but we have to wait and see.