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 restricted 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…