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Rohan Bopanna returns the ball to Czech Republic’s Adam Pavlasek and Radek Stepanek during the Davis Cup World Group play-off doubles tennis match in New Delhi on 19 September. Photo: AFP
Rohan Bopanna returns the ball to Czech Republic’s Adam Pavlasek and Radek Stepanek during the Davis Cup World Group play-off doubles tennis match in New Delhi on 19 September. Photo: AFP

Rohan Bopanna: The man in waiting

As Leander Paes and Sania Mirza pick up Slam after Slam, Rohan Bopanna is steadily playing catch-up. With the Olympics coming up next year, this may well be his time

I’m a firm believer in the saying that there’s a time for everything," a confident-sounding Rohan Bopanna said on his return from the 2015 US Open, where he had one quarter-final and one semi-final finish, in the men’s doubles and mixed doubles, respectively.

“And I believe very much that my time is now."

The 35-year-old then walked into one of the side courts at New Delhi’s RK Khanna Tennis stadium, where he was training for India’s Davis Cup World Group play-off tie against the top-ranked Czech Republic. He wanted to practise his serve, alone. Boom—he sent one down hard and fast, easily the biggest weapon in his game, and then politely asked the gathered journalists to leave. “I don’t like anybody on court when I’m serving," he said.

A couple of days later, Bopanna played perhaps his worst match of the year, a straight-set loss to Radek Stepanek and Adam Pavlasek, partnering Leander Paes in the Davis Cup tie on 19 September that snuffed out India’s hopes against the Czech Republic.

That aside, this has been one of Bopanna’s best seasons in tennis. On his 12th year on tour, the 6ft, 3 inches player from Coorg has won four titles. Two of those were won with Romania’s Florin Mergea, including one on clay, a first for Bopanna. The duo also made it to the semi-finals at Wimbledon, and the quarters at the US Open.

Bopanna and Mergea seem to be forging a strong partnership.

“Florin’s not really a traditional serve and volley player," says Bopanna. “He stays back, and that has complemented my game beautifully. A lot of good teams are going that way now. Hitting the ball heavy, Florin’s that sort of a player, with amazing groundstrokes. It’s worked well for us so far."

Yet, at a time when India’s top doubles players are sweeping the biggest titles in tennis, Bopanna’s best doesn’t seem nearly good enough.

For many Grand Slams now, Bopanna has seen his compatriots, Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza, win title after title. In the last two Grand Slams of 2015, Indian players picked up all the four doubles titles on offer.

“I am asked this question all the time," he smiles. “But my first Grand Slam title is around the corner. I have grown in confidence, and I can feel it better than ever before."

A runners-up finish with Pakistan’s Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi at the 2010 US Open has been Bopanna’s best showing at a Grand Slam so far. But even as Bopanna develops his partnership with Mergea in his quest for a Slam, potentially trickier challenges await. Going by the excellent streak of form that Paes, Bopanna and Mirza are on, they will be seen as strong contenders for the doubles medals at the Rio Olympics next year.

Paes has already telegraphed his intentions. Despite the Davis Cup loss, Paes told reporters how much he would like to partner with Bopanna: “I’ve got a phenomenal partner for myself," he said. “I believe in Rohan. As long as we believe in ourselves, and keep ourselves fit, I believe we have a shot at a medal in Rio."

You would think twice before taking that statement seriously. Bopanna and Paes have a terrible history when it comes to playing (or trying to play) together.

Last weekend’s Davis Cup loss, for example, was only the second time in 15 years that Paes had lost a Davis Cup doubles tie; the first one was also with Bopanna.

And then there’s the episode from the last Olympics which threatened to rip apart the Indian tennis fraternity. Briefly, the All India Tennis Association (Aita) had told Bopanna and Bhupathi that they would be playing together at the 2012 Olympics. Bopanna broke off his successful partnership with Qureshi to start playing with Bhupathi to prepare for the Games. After six months of playing together, Aita told the pair that they wanted Bopanna to play with Paes. Bhupathi and Bopanna both refused, and were promptly thrown out of India’s Davis Cup team by Aita.

“That’s not how I like to see it," Bopanna says, when asked if he was caught in the crossfire of two warring egos (Bhupathi and Paes). But Bopanna admits the bad blood before the London Olympics left him “scarred." “Nobody wants to go into a tournament like the Olympics with that kind of negativity," he says.

Three years after the Olympic selection controversy, Bopanna has come into his own. With Bhupathi spending more time in boardrooms, organizing the International Premier Tennis League, than on tennis courts, and Paes having fallen in the rankings (currently 33rd), Bopanna, ranked 13, is going to be the most crucial cog in the wheel for India.

Bopanna, though, is playing it cool; once bitten, twice shy. “I’ve got a partnership going with Florin," he says. “Things are working. I’ve got a commitment towards the guy for the rest of the season."

While Bopanna’s chances of winning a Grand Slam in 2015 are over, he’s ready for a string of tournaments in Asia, as Mergea and he try to qualify for the year-ending ATP World Tour in London, UK.

If Paes and Bopanna do pair up for the Olympics, it may just be a one-off thing, the way they do it for Davis Cup ties. The loss to the Czech Republic was in fact the first time in a year that the two were playing together, the last being a Davis Cup tie against Serbia last year. It is likely then that the next match Paes-Bopanna will play will be India’s next Davis Cup tie, in July next year, just a month before the Olympics.

Hardly the kind of partnership-building you need to make a bid for an Olympic medal.

Suprita Das is a senior sports correspondent with NDTV.

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