New Delhi: Bereft of its top players, India risk losing the Asia|Oceania Group I tie against Korea as the hosts conceded a 0-2 lead on opening day after debutants V M Ranjeet and Vijayant Malik suffered contrasting defeats in their singles matches, here on Friday.
It was a forgettable debut for 27-year-old Ranjeet as he was trounced 1-6 0-6 1-6 in an hour and 23 minutes in the first singles of the first-round tie at the R K Khanna Tennis stadium. The onus to bring India back in the tie was on the 22-year-old Malik and he fought his heart out but lacked fitness to meet the challenge as he conceded the second singles against Korean No 1 Suk-Young Jeong.
Malik was trailing 4-6 5-7 0-3 against Jeong, ranked 216 places above him at 321st the match, when cramps in his left leg took the fizz out of his challenge. Leander Paes, the only top player in the hosts line-up, and Purav Raja will now take on Yong-Kyu Lim and Ji Sung Nam in the must-win doubles rubber on Saturday.
India missed its top players badly, specially Somdev Devvarman, as the slow surface required fit players like him who could wear out their rivals. Somdev, who has the amazing ability of staying in, was the ideal player on this court and his absence was felt.
However, unlike Ranjeet, Malik took the fight into the rival camp, fighting fire with fire. He refused to be dominated by the superior rival and threw everything he had in his arsenal. His fierce double-handed backhand, stinging serve and a few calculated lobs meant that Korean had to earn points.
There was little to separate Malik and Jeong in the opening set but a few unforced errors cost the Indian dear as he dropped his serve in the fourth game to concede a mini lead which stayed with the Korean and he walked away with the lead. Watched by country's top woman player Sania Mirza, egged on by legendary team-mate Paes, who was waving the tri-colour to the beats of the Dhol, and cheered on by sparse but vocal crowd, Malik continued to fight for India's cause.
He denied Jeong leverage by saving a breakpoint in the very first game and earned four break chances in the fourth game but could convert none. It was on serve till the 10th game but, when Jeong hit a winner past Malik to earn his second break chance of the set, he did not squander it this time. Malik's forehand error handed Jeong the break and immediately the Indian required a medical time-out to treat cramps.
Jeong served out the set comfortably and with that Indian hopes of levelling the scores evaporated. A break in the very first game of third set meant that Malik made his job much harder. It required a miracle of sorts for India to save the day and it never happened.
Nevertheless, Malik fought valiantly and it was all expected of him. Earlier, V M Ranjeet suffered a straight-set thrashing against Min Hyoek Cho to allow Korea grab a 1-0 lead. Going by the slow nature of the surface, it was clear from the first game itself that hanging in and putting more balls inside the lines was all which matter. Ranjeet did run hard, retrieved a good number of balls but Cho hardly missed a shot or point.
Korean captain's decision to field 26-year-old Cho, who served his country's Army for two years before resuming his career, proved absolutely correct as he gave his side a flying start in the absence of home team's star players. Neither the 'Chak De India' song, played in between the games nor the Dhol beats could help lift Ranjeet's game as the Indian was down 0-3 in the opening set.
The first set was over in 30 minutes and the Indian did not hold his serve even once. He was broken at love in the third and fifth games. Ranjeet did try to switch to plan B, playing aggressively, approaching the net but nothing worked as Cho went past him with the winners on the either side of the court.
The only time Cho faltered was in the fourth game and it was only time when Ranjeet got on the board. The second set was no different and it actually became from bad to worse to pathetic as the Chennai lad was bageled after being broken thrice. The only saving grace for Ranjeet in the third set was that he could hold his serve, in the fourth game, but otherwise the script was the same.
Cho hit a forehand winner on set point to end Ranjeet's misery.