“It’s not about winning or losing,” begins Rehman Gul, the coach and manager of the Pakistan Davis Cup team. “We have already won the game of tennis just by coming here and showing our sportsman spirit…” It’s a loaded statement for a tie that is likely to be ‘oh so tame’.
It’s a tie that once promised a whole lot of drama for the right reasons, a tie that delivered drama for all that is bad, and a tie that is now taking place in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, and not Islamabad, Pakistan. The Indians were always going to be the favourites, no matter the venue or the surface, just because of the depth of the team and the gulf in class between the two sides.
Given the stature of the youngsters the Pakistan federation has been forced to send for this tie – the three players neither have a great presence on the ITF or ATP websites, nor much experience of playing tennis at a high level – the result is a foregone conclusion.
As expected, India has put their best team forward. Sumit Nagal and Ramkumar Ramanathan would play the four singles rubbers, and Davis Cup debutant Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan would team up with 18-time Grand Slam champion Leander Paes for the sole doubles match. Saketh Myneni is the fifth member in the team, while Sidharth Rawat will be the reserve.
Pakistan, meanwhile, chose to send only three freshers—Muhammad Shoaib, Huzaifa Abdul Rehman and Yousaf Khalil—to Kazakhstan. According to the draw on Thursday, world no 176 Ramkumar will play Shoaib in the opening rubber, followed by India’s most improved player of 2019, the world no 131 Nagal taking on Rehman. The two Pakistanis will then pair up on Saturday to play doubles against Paes and Jeevan before playing their reverse singles ties.
Last week, when the International Tennis Federation (ITF) declared that this tie would be shifted out of Islamabad and to neutral Kazakhstan, Pakistan’s two stalwarts Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Aqeel Khan—whose presence may have arguably given their team half a chance—decided to boycott the tie in protest. In their stead, Davis Cup debutants Muhammad Shoaib (aged 17), Huzaifa Abdul Rehman (also 17), and 20-year-old Yousaf Khalil make up the four-member contingent that includes Gul.
To be fair, Shoaib and Rehman are considered among the brightest tennis prospects from Pakistan in their age group. But that’s not to say that their standing is of much significance in the world junior stage.
Shoaib, who comes from the family of legendary six-time squash world champion Jahangir Khan, has a combined junior ranking of 1005. A student at a university in Peshawar with a two-handed forehand, he’s played most of his tournaments in Pakistan. His compatriot Rehman though comes to this Davis Cup tie having recently reached the final of a junior ITF event in Fujairah, UAE. He has travelled for events in the last two years, playing in the UAE, Turkey, Kenya, Jordan and Qatar, and has a combined junior ranking of 447.
The team’s senior most player, Khalil meanwhile, does have an ATP ranking—tied at 1680—but last played an event, a Futures tournament, in December last year.
So depleted is the Pakistani squad that Shoaib has been listed as playing ‘captain’ for this tie. In comparison, India has taken along a sizeable entourage of 12, which includes a non-playing captain, coach, physiotherapists, and a manager.
Yet the situation might have been different had the tie not been shifted to a neutral venue. Nagal and Ramkumar made it clear that they would not compete should the tie be played in Pakistan owing to security concerns. The Indian team may too have been depleted if they were to play in Islamabad, on grass courts, where Qureshi and Khan are known to be rather proficient. But that remains one of those ‘what-could-have-been’ moments for Pakistan.
And so on Friday, one of the world’s greatest rivalries will get another chapter, but it may just be one of the most mismatched competitions ever played.