Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, one of Pakistan’s most accomplished tennis players, may now be 43 years old, and may not even be placed on the singles rankings of the ATP Tour, but he found himself seven points away from creating a huge upset. But India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan clutched up on serve and return to save himself from the blushes and overturn a one-set deficit against Qureshi, prevailing 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-0 in the opening singles rubber of the Davis Cup World Group 1 playoff tie between India and Pakistan in Islamabad on Saturday.
N Sriram Balaji, a relatively inexperienced singles player in the past few years, followed up Ramkumar’s win by defeating 44-year-old veteran Aqeel Khan 7-5, 6-3 to give India an imposing 2-0 lead in the tie heading into the second day.
India were the favourites on both experience and ranking – even without their two top-ranked players Sumit Nagal and Sasikumar Mukund – and it was Ramkumar’s ability to hold his own on grass courts that was supposed to give the side the edge. However, Qureshi had Ramkumar on the ropes throughout the second set, after edging the tiebreaker in the first, keeping up with his opponent’s big serving game. Qureshi was 40-15 up at 3-4 on Ramkumar’s serve before the Indian served his way out of trouble. He never looked back.
The Pakistan veteran is not a regular singles player, but his know-how, especially on grass, and commitment to high-tempo attacking tennis put Ramkumar in a fix. The 461st-ranked Indian, however, solved for problems in the second set, returning with venom from the get-go, getting an early lead before being broken himself to make it 2-2.
Ramkumar, a serve-and-volleyer, had not been up to the mark on his first serve up until that point, making only 48% of them, but was still racing through his service games in the first set. It remained key for him as he was able to turn the match around by locking in on serve, continuing to keep his service games and points short, and allowing his veteran opponent to wear himself out as he took the second to another shootout.
He then broke Qureshi’s game down with a couple of big winners to fashion a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker and served it out to take the match to a deciding set. And as Qureshi wilted under the intensity and the pressure, suffering an apparent hamstring issue, the Indian would not lose another game as he handed out a bagel in the third set and ignited India’s push to break down Pakistan’s spirited challenge.
The Davis Cup team’s tour of Pakistan remains one of the rare occasions that an Indian sports team has crossed the border over the past few years, as geopolitical tensions have risen between the two countries. In view of that, and India’s multiple requests to move the tie to a neutral venue like it had been done in 2019, the ITF forced the Pakistan Tennis Federation’s hand in keeping this tie a low-key affair, with only 500-odd spectators in attendance at the Islamabad Sports Complex on a gloomy day.
In the second singles rubber, Khan kept up with Balaji through some smart serving, even saving a break point in the middle of the first set before buckling as he was serving to force the set into a second tiebreaker. Rain would interrupt proceedings with India unquestionably ahead, and as play resumed, Balaji did not let the momentum flow the other way, staying sharp on his own serve and breaking Khan’s in the only game he created break points to round out the 7-5, 6-3 win.
Next up in doubles, Yuki Bhambri and Saketh Myneni will take on Muzammil Murtaza and Barkat Ullah in the third rubber on Sunday, with which they could seal the tie for India with a win.