Veteran tennis star Leander Paes was on Monday retained in the India's Davis Cup team for next month's Asia/Oceania Zone tie against Uzbekistan. The tie, which will be India's first with Mahesh Bhupathi as the non-playing captain, will also witness the return of Rohan Bopanna.
Bopanna was not included for last month's tie against New Zealand that Indian won 4-1.
He did extremely well at the just-concluded Dubai ATP 500 event, where he reached the final with partner Marcin Matkowski. En route the summit clash, he also got the better of Paes and his partner Gracia Gulliermo-Lopez in the semifinals.
India will go in with two specialist singles players in Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramnathan.
The AITA selection committee, led by SP Misra, named four singles players -- Ramkumar Ramanathan, Yuki Bhambri, Prajnesh Gunneswaran and N Sriram Balaji -- and two doubles players --Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes -- in the six-member squad. AITA Secretary General Hironmoy Chatterjee said it was now up to the captain to decide on the final four.
"This is the best India has and we have given the captain the opportunity to pick from the best. As of today (for the doubles) the best option was Leander and Rohan, ranking wise and form wise. Captain will discuss with chairman of the Selection Committee 10 days before the tie to finalise the final four," Chatterjee said.
"This tie is very important. Denis Istomin is expected to win both the singles matches if he is fit, so doubles becomes very crucial in this tie, so it is now up to the captain." Chatterjee also said they had thought of picking three singles and one doubles player but after discussions, they opted to have a six-member squad.
Asked about the troubled past involving Bopanna and Paes, Chatterjee said, "When the players step on the court, they see only the ball."
When picked as a pair for Rio Olympics last year, Bopanna had stated that his game was not compatible with Paes. Coach Zeeshan Ali also made it clear that selection will always be dictated by requirement of the side during a particular tie.
"It's not fixed that we play three singles and one doubles or two singles and two doubles. It will depend on which team we play. As far as Rohan and Leander are concerned, they had issues in the past but they have also come together and played some amazing matches," Zeeshan said. "Each one is ready to play and if they had any issue they would not have made themselves available. They are professionals."
Talking about the new fitness guidelines for the team decided by Mahesh Bhupathi, Chatterjee said the captain had insisted that all the players need to be tested and suggested a place called Heal in Mumbai for the fitness test.
"We don't want a situation like Pune," he said referring to Saketh Myneni's last-minute pullout from the New Zealand tie due to fitness issues, forcing the inclusion of Vishnu Vardhan in the team.
Zeeshan said new fitness rules will only help Indian tennis go forward.
Quizzed on the issue of Paes continuing to be in the team at 43, Misra said AITA can't tell the veteran or any other player to not make himself available as long as they are performing.
"If the player is performing and giving results how can AITA say if he should play or not?" Misra said.
"He (Paes) reached the finals of the Dubai last week, so he should not be deprived," chipped in Chatterjee. AITA also picked top two juniors Dhruv Sunish and Nitin Sinha to be with the squad for exposure.
Bhupathi said his decision on the final four will be based on players performance in the next three weeks.
"With the current roster of available players for the Davis Cup Tie, I am confident that this is the strongest squad for the Tie. My decision on the final competing team for the weekend will be based on their performances over the next three weeks and their fitness levels during the week of the tie," Bhupathi said in a statement.
"I look forward to a fruitful term as captain of the Davis Cup Team, and count-on strong support from the boys and the AITA," he added.
(With inputs from PTI)