Davis Cup: Heat, unpredictable weather could negate home advantage for India

Lucknow: As temperatures hit nearly 35-degrees Celsius on Friday, India and Morocco’s final training day gave them a taste of what was to come for their Davis Cup tie this weekend in Lucknow.

The hot and humid conditions of Lucknow have been so brutal on the players that it has prompted organisers to delay the start of the matches by two hours in order to ease the physical strain on the players. The rubbers will begin at 2pm and 1pm on Saturday and Sunday respectively, hoping to play into the evening, even under the floodlights if needed, as temperatures settle.

While hot home conditions have always played into the hands of India in past Davis Cup ties, perhaps going back decades, with most of the present-day players training and competing abroad, it is likely to be just as taxing on them, a fact the opposition are well aware of.

On the sidelines of the draw ceremony held at the chief minister’s residence here, Morocco’s non-playing captain Mehdi Tahiri was unwilling to use the sweltering heat as an excuse, especially after being in India for a nearly 10-day-long period to acclimatise to the conditions. This, despite the injury-induced absence of their No. 1 ranked singles player, Elliot Benchetrit, who will only play the doubles on Sunday.

“It will be difficult because of the humid conditions. But we came here two weeks ago. We should be fine. Rankings-wise, India is better. They have a very good doubles team but most of the players train outside the country and the humidity will be a factor for them too. We will use our chances to make it interesting,” he said.

Both of India’s top players have been playing abroad as recently as a few days ago. Rohan Bopanna, playing his last Davis Cup tie after representing India across 20 years in the team competition, played the US Open men’s doubles final last Friday, while their top-ranked singles player, Sumit Nagal, was playing the final of the Tulln Challenger on Sunday.

Short bursts, breaks

If their hitting sessions on Friday were anything to go by, the Indian contingent looked cognisant of the conditions. Training took place in shorter bursts, breaks were more frequent, and the ability to deal with exhaustion seemed to be on everybody’s minds. The players have been under a hydration and recovery program under the watchful eyes of the physios, according to coach Zeeshan Ali. If the weather continues to be scorching, hydration and nutrition, as well as conservation of energy, might be key in outlasting their opponents.

“Today was not as much of a problem but yesterday (Thursday) it was brutal,” Bopanna told the media. “I can’t remember a single Davis Cup tie, even five-set matches in places like Chennai, struggling so much with the heat and sweating this much that I am constantly grabbing a towel or changing my shirt.”

Keeping the heat in mind to formulate strategy may also be tricky, given the unpredictability of the weather. The past few days have seen intermittent periods of rain, which could delay matches, but also in its aftermath, increase humidity. “Every single day we have been here the weather has been different, so we will wait and see for tomorrow before making any strategies,” coach Ali said.

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“I think in conditions like these, it’s more of a mental challenge than a physical one,” Nagal said. “You need to be able to push yourself to be at your best even when it’s exhausting.”

Even if the temperatures negate some of the home advantages, this a tie India enter as overwhelming favourites, with a home crowd behind them and vastly higher-ranked players. Having already been relegated to the World Group 2, India could do with a statement win if they aspire to at least get back to Group 1, the second tier of the team competition. Perhaps more importantly, it would save them from having to answer for another disappointing defeat.

On Saturday, Sasikumar Mukund will open the tie with a singles rubber against 20-year-old World No. 557 Yassine Dlimi, before Nagal takes on Adam Moundir, a player he is ranked 355 places higher than in the world rankings.

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