India will be without their top singles players but the visitors, who have come to Pakistan after 60 years, will still start as favourites in the historic Davis Cup World Group I play-off tie, which is being played within a restrictive environment due to security concerns. India have never lost to Pakistan in Davis Cup history, winning all seven ties so far, and the trend is likely to continue. However, the hosts are expected to put up a good fight through their biggest stars, Aisam-ul-haq Qureshi and Aqeel Khan, after choosing to play on grass courts. If Pakistan stood a chance against India, it had to be on the grass courts because both Aisam and Aqeel are tremendous fighters, and this surface brings the best out of them.
The courts in Islamabad are fast with low bounce, and it made sense that N Sriram Balaji, who is a doubles specialist, has been asked to play singles on the opening day along with the team’s best singles player, Ramkumar Ramanathan.
India had an option in the form of Niki Poonacha but he is taller than Balaji, and on low-bounce grass courts, taller players struggle more as they have to go down a lot to pick up balls, and that could disturb the rhythm of a player.
This strategy was successfully used by the iconic Leander Paes to torment the Europeans, who would come to India to compete in Davis Cup.
Also, Balaji has the experience of playing at a good level and that will give him the confidence to handle the pressure of playing against Pakistan on their home soil.
He recently played at the Australian Open and the one-week camp in New Delhi, before arriving in Islamabad, would have also made him sharper and ready for the singles challenge.
“I have shifted to doubles in the last couple of years but that does not mean I am totally away from singles. I am practising singles whenever I can. When I get the opportunity to play Challengers I do play, so I am really excited to play against Pakistan,” he said.
Ramkumar is one player in the current generation of Indian players who loves to serve and volley, and playing on grass is his strength too. His career-best result of making the ATP250 final in Newport also came on grass courts.
Ramkumar will open the tie for India with a clash against 43-year-old Aisam, who said he is “younger at heart.” “All of you are reminding me of my age but I am young at heart,” he joked at the draw ceremony.
“Playing against India motivates me. I had a tough 2023, I had injuries and my ranking also dropped. I am inspired to play this tie.
“Hopefully, the change will begin with this tie, and hopefully, more Indian teams will come to Pakistan, and I am glad it is beginning with tennis,” said the country’s most accomplished tennis player.
India’s non-playing captain Zeeshan Ali felt that it will be a close tie and refused to engage in discussion on why the Indian cricket team or other Indian athletes do not travel to Pakistan for competition.
“We are here to play tennis. Certain decisions are taken by the government and we have no role in that. We have come prepared, and we have a job to do,” he said and also acknowledged the warm hospitality the host has offered to the Indian team.
Pakistan have nominated Barkatullah and Muzammil Murtaza to take on Yuki Bhambri and Saketh Myneni in the doubles.
Teams can change nominations on the morning of the match. If It’s 1-1 on day one, Aisam and Aqeel may play the doubles as well, as they have done in the past.
Pakistan are playing in home conditions but not many home fans will be there to cheers them as ITF has allaowd only 500 guests and fans to watch the action unfold at Islamabad Sports Complex.
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