The pair of Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna kept India afloat with a stirring five-set win over Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac in the crucial doubles match of the Davis Cup World Group playoff tie here Saturday.
Down by two sets and by a break in the third, the Indians rallied to win 1-6, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3, 8-6, in two hours, 58 minutes as the Serbs lost their early flow after Zimonjic suffered neck spasms that restricted his movements.
The emotional doubles victory evoked memories of the playoff tie in Chennai four years ago when India, after losing both the singles on the first day against Brazil, came through 3-2.
Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi had won the crucial doubles tie and India went on to claim both the reverse singles.
Saturday’s doubles match provided much drama as the Serbs, leading 3-2 in the third set, suffered a setback as the 38-year-old Zimonjic required medical attention to his neck.
The break proved to be the turning point as the rejuvenated Indians came surging back to turn a near defeat into victory.
If both Bopanna (34) and Paes (41) appeared tentative and like a couple of kids lost in the woods early on, the break in the third set seemed to fire both.
Though neither played consistently at a high level they are capable of, they did just enough to break the Serbian combination that was virtually reduced to one man with Zimonjic struggling with a painful neck.
“I felt spasms in the neck after I played a forehand shot a couple of points earlier. After that, I just couldn’t turn my head without feeling the pain.
“I missed a lot of shots that I wouldn’t have, and it was frustrating that I couldn’t stretch. I also lost my serve in the fourth set and the Indians played freely,” said Zimonjic, though he said Saturday’s defeat would not affect his team.
“It was 2-1 in our favour the last time we played India. We won that tie (2011 World Group first round in Novi Sad). The situation is the same now. We are the favourites to win the tie and we have to win just one of the two matches Sunday,” he said.
The first set was a washout as the Serbian combination, bristling aggression, came up with three service breaks, two of them off Paes, to go 1-0 up in just 15 minutes.
The Indian pair looked out of sorts and ill at ease against the Serbs for whom veteran Zimonjic led from the front with a series of brilliant netplay and crafty placements while Bozo provided the firepower.
While Bopanna’s serve was inconsistent, Paes could barely get the ball in and in fact the Indians went through a spell where they picked up just one point in three games.
In the second, both Paes and Bopanna found some sort of understanding as they broke the Serbs to love in the third game for a 2-1 lead with Zimonjic committing a double fault and generally erring in length.
The Indians had another chance to break when they led 40-30 on Bozoljac’s serve. However, the Serb blasted three aces to hold serve to keep his team in the set.
The next couple of games went with serve until Paes was broken for the third time in the match as the Serbs caught up at 4-4.
In the 11th, the Indians blew a breakpoint that would have put them 6-5 ahead. Three poor returns of serve by Bopanna helped the Serbs to hold.
The tie-breaker was inevitable as Bopanna, who received the ITF award “Davis Cup commitment” prior to the match, served out the 12th game. The Serbs played some smart tennis to clinch the tie-break 7-4 for a 2-0 advantage.
The third set unfolded with the now-familiar scenario of Paes dropping serve as the Serbs took a 3-2 lead when they took a medical time out as Zimonjic complained of neck sprain.
The break in play seemed to have upset the Serb pair’s rhythm as both Bozoljac and Zimonjic dropped serve in the sixth and eighth games and the Indians cruised through to take the set 6-3.
Paes played some inspired tennis blasting winners from both back court and also the net while Bopanna played a solid game as suddenly, the Indian combination gained in stature.
The Indian domination was more pronounced in the fourth set as Serbia were reduced to virtually one player with Zimonjic taking treatment between points.
Two breaks in the first and ninth, both off Zimonjic, saw the Indians taking the set with relative ease in mere 17 minutes.
In the decisive fifth set, very little separated the two teams as games went with serve though the Indians looking the better equipped, at least in terms of combined experience. The fact that the home team served first in the set meant the pressure was constant on the visitors.
The match ended when the Indians broke Zimonjic in the 14th game with the veteran putting out a forehand down the line to trigger a massive outpouring of emotions and celebrations in the stands.