On a weekday afternoon, Cubbon Park in Bangalore cuts a painterly patch of green. The Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA) inside it glitters in the sunshine, while the bamboo thickets punctuating the park rest in shade.
A line of children are the few spectators at the tennis courts. Part of the reason for their presence is to hone their serve-and-volley skills, but another vital reason is to reacquaint themselves with their local pin-up: The man who, along with a Pakistani doubles partner, made it to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon recently. In doing so, Rohan Bopanna achieved his career-best doubles world ranking of 38.
Bopanna, an Indian Navy officer in the guise of a Roger Federer, looks much younger than his 30 years, in white tees and shorts, and sporting the closest of crew cuts. The children stop, look at their assistant coach, and are about to pounce on Bopanna when we kidnap him. He glances at them with an I’ll-finish-them-off-and-be-with-you wave.
The day before, he was felicitated by the state government for his services to tennis and to put it in chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa’s words, “for putting the state on the world map”. But Bopanna aims at being the agent of change for several others.
At Wimbledon, he and doubles partner Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan did something unique. They lobbed, served, hit forehand, backhand, cross-court shots and thumped their chests wearing T-shirts saying “Stop War” and “Start Tennis”, respectively. Last month, Bopanna was named a “Champion for Peace” by the Monaco-based international organization Peace and Sport. He joined 47 other international athletes who help promote the message of peace through their sport. Wimbledon may have been a good platform to spread the good word, but an even more appropriate location is being sought: the Wagah border.
“We really want to make a difference, spread the message of tennis as a way of promoting the cause of peace,” Bopanna says. “That’s why the plans at the border. Things are at a preliminary stage, though we have sent in official requests to the governments of both (countries),” he says. Bopanna and Qureshi also have a page on the social networking website Facebook dedicated to their cause.
Does he really think this would make a difference? What, in concrete terms, does he have in mind? He pauses. “We’d rather try and fail than not try at all,” he says, explaining his own connection with Qureshi, which goes back a long way. Indeed, they have been friends for nearly a decade. Both did appreciably well in a host of low-key tournaments around the world since 2003 and decided to join up as a doubles team later.
Seconding such sentiments is his doubles partner. “We want to find a way of uniting people, keep them away from politics and religion,” Qureshi says over the phone from Lahore. He became an ambassador for Peace and Sport last year. But where exactly on the Wagah border will the match be played?
“It’s just the same spot that you see on TV. Right at the line where India and Pakistan part, we plan (on) tying a tennis net, Insha Allah!”
Qureshi is upbeat about the reception for the match (whenever it happens), as tennis now has a name and face in Pakistan—courtesy his doubles win last year with partner James Cerretani over Roger Federer and Marco Chiudinelli in Basel, plus the recent run at Wimbledon.
All these qualities combine to give the words of a usually phlegmatic Bopanna a pensive objective. “Even if a tiny portion of the population here and there comes over to see us play, I think we would have made some difference,” he says.