Davis Cup: Playing a tie in Pakistan had its own pressure, says Zeeshan Ali
More than six decades after his father’s visit there as a player, India’s captain-coach sets foot across the border
For Zeeshan Ali, the recent trip to Pakistan as the captain of India’s Davis Cup team must have been a rather emotional experience. The last time a team crossed the border was way back in 1964, with Zeeshan's father Akhtar Ali as one of the key members of the side along with the likes of Premjit Lall, and they recorded a clean sweep.
Last weekend, captain Zeeshan’s men completed a 4-0 rout to stay in Group I of the World Group and the former star admitted that the pressure of expectations didn’t give him the leeway to soak in the experience of visiting the country.
‘’At a personal level, it was certainly a moving experience to set foot in Pakistan as I had heard a lot of stories from my dad. However, the tie was a high pressure one which we were expected to win on paper and it was also the first time I was playing the role of a captain-and-coach after serving as the later for last 11 years,’’ Zeeshan said on the team’s return from Islamabad.
A trip to Pakistan by any Indian contingent in a high profile sport carries a ring of political and diplomatic significance — and it was no different this time with the team being accorded a head-of-state security.
Speaking to National Herald in an exclusive chat, Zeeshan said: ‘’Our daily schedule was basically from the team hotel to the venue of Pakistan Sports Complex and back but to be honest, we were mentally ready for it. The hotel had choices of multiple cuisine and the warm welcome which we received from the people and officials were really heartwarming.’’
A Dhyan Chand awardee and India’s best bet in singles in the pre-Leander Paes era, the articulate Zeeshan admitted that he had to put his best foot forward as a diplomat too at the crowded press conferences. ‘’The directive for us was to stick to questions pertaining to Davis Cup only. Whenever any member of the media tried to push the envelope, representatives of Pakistan Tennis Federation used to butt in. The interest level in Pakistan among fans around this tie was quite high but as per the security protocol, only 500-odd fans were allowed on both days,’’ he revealed.
While Pakistan had never been a serious threat as a tennis power, there is a certain degree of interest in the country in racket sport and their prowess in squash is all too well known. Aisam Qureshi, now 43, had been their best known exports in tennis and his combination with the evergeen Rohan Bopanna in men’s doubles on the ATP Tour saw them being addressed as the 'Indo-Pak Express' not too long ago.
‘’Aisam is still playing singles for them. From India’s point of view, we missed out on the services of No.1 singles player Sumit Nagal and Sasikumar Mukund as they had pulled out of this tie. We were hence left with one singles player in Ramkumar and essentially four doubles players on the unfamiliar grass courts where our boys hardly play these days. I feel the players should have made themselves available for such an important tie,’’ remarked Zeeshan.
It was a one-sided tie as the scoreline suggests and after Ramkumar Ramanathan and N. Sriram Balaji won their respective singles matches on Day I, the writing was on the wall. On Sunday, the doubles pair of Yuki Bhambri and Saketh Myneni gave India an unassailable 3-0 lead before debutant Niki Poonacha won his singles match in straight sets.
Looking ahead, India will be drawn to play from a pool of some strong tennis nations to stay in Group 1 in September. The countries include Serbia, Croatia, Austria and Norway (for home) while there are the likes of Sweden, Switzerland for away ties. ‘’If our visit to Pakistan even help a handful of boys take up the sport there, it’s a big plus. Meanwhile, we will plan for the next couse of action once the draw takes place,’’ the 54-year-old Zeeshan added.