Pune, Feb 2: All eyes will be on veteran Leander Paes, who is the on the cusp of a historic world record in perhaps his last appearance in Davis Cup, as India clash with relatively weaker New Zealand in the Asia/Oceania Group I tie, here from tomorrow, February 3.
The 18-time Grand Slam champion, who is all set to take part in his 55th Davis Cup tie, is tied with Italys Nicola Pietrangeli on 42 doubles wins in doubles. A win on Saturday will make him the most successful doubles player ever in Davis Cup history.
Paes, however, will have to team up with last-minute inclusion and his London Olympics doubles partner Vishnu Vardhan, after original choice Saketh Myneni failed to recover from a foot injury sustained during last month's Chennai Open.
"Myneni's injury is not okay yet," said Anand Amritraj, who is leading the side for one last time, at a press conference after the draw for the tie, which will be first in Pune after 43 years.
Paes and national hard court champion Vardhan will clash with the Kiwi pair of Artem Sitak and Michael Venus on day two of the tie.
Vardhan was given a call-up after three people spoke to India's top doubles player Rohan Bopanna, team captain Anand Amritraj said at the media conference after the draw.
"Three people spoke to him. I did not. I don't know exactly what happened," said Amritraj.
Paes asked on the subject, said he wanted to give a call to Bopanna yesterday but was stopped from doing so.
"I was the first to suggest of making a call to Rohan but I was told not to make the call," said Paes who partnered Bopanna at the Rio Games but crashed out in the first round.
He, however, refused to divulge who prevented him from doing so.
Yuki Bhambri, ranked 368, will open India's campaign against New Zealand's number one player Finn Tearney, ranked 414, while Ramkumar Ramanathan (206) will take on Jose Statham
(417) in the second singles.
On paper, due to higher rankings and the advantage of playing at home, India appear to hold a clear edge over the Kiwis against whom they have a 5-3 win-loss record, with all the defeats occurring in the 1970s.
India have not lost to New Zealand since 1978 when the Kiwis, then spearheaded by Onny Parun, had beaten them 4-1 in New Delhi in the Eastern Zone semifinal.
But they can ill afford to take New Zealand lightly especially considering that the visitors had proved a tough nut to crack in their own backyard in Christchurch in July, 2015, in the Asia-Oceania Group I semifinal, which team captain Anand Amritraj conceded had happened.
"Their doubles team is stronger but we cannot take their singles players light. When we met the last time we did that and we were down 1-2," recalled Amritraj.
India trailed New Zealand 1-2 when Somdev Devvarman dropped the opening singles against Michael Venus and the doubles combine of Myneni and Rohan Bopanna lost to Sitak and
Marcus Daniell after Yuki Bhambri had won his first singles rubber against Statham.
On the final day in reverse singles Bhambri and Devvarman rose to the occasion to win their rubbers against Venus and Daniell respectively to pull off a come-from-behind win.
Paes did not take part in that tie and also missed Indias earlier 5-0 clean sweep over New Zealand in Chandigarh in 2012.
But his was the big presence in the previous three victories over New Zealand in 2004, 2003 and 2002 when he played in singles and doubles (with Mahesh Bhupathi).
Amritraj was happy that Bhambri will take the court first for India.
"I am happy to have Yuki first and then Ramkumar," said Amritraj who conceded it was difficult to fill in for the injured Myneni especially in doubles at the eleventh hour.
"Luckily Vishnu was in Hyderabad after he did not get his visa to go and play in Kazakhstan and he was ready to play."
Vardhan said he got a call first from Paes and then Zeeshan. "I had returned home after working in the gym and got a call first from Leander and then Zeeshan. I readily agreed as Futures and other ITF events come regularly while playing for the country is something special," said Vishnu.
Paes empathised with Mynenis plight. "I feel sorry for Saketh who I enjoyed playing with when we teamed up against Spain. He came up to me yesterday and said he cannot continue. We all go through ups and downs," said Paes.
About himself, Paes said he was always ready to play for the country. "I am always ready to wear the saffron and green flag. We all in fact love to do so. We play as a team."
Bhambri said he was out for six months due to injury and missed being part of the squad. New Zealand captain Alistair Hunt, a doubles partner of Paes in his junior days, said the change in the Indian squad "does not affect" them.
The matches will be held in the afternoon and then under lights. "Our players are used to play in warm conditions, although conditions in New Zealand are never as hot as in
India," he said.
The winner of the tie will play against the winner of the Uzbekistan-Korea clash in the second round scheduled between April 7 and 9.
The India-New Zealand tie would also be the first Davis Cup contest to be hosted by this city in more than four decades.
Pune last hosted a Davis Cup tie in 1974 when current captain Anand and his younger brother Vijay were part of the Indian squad that played against the erstwhile USSR on grass
at the Deccan Gymkhana.
This will be the eighth Davis Cup tie to be hosted by Maharashtra, with the first dating back to the India-Pakistan Eastern Zone first round encounter held between March 31 and April 2, 1963 here which India won 4-1.