Unassuming and humble, Rohan Bopanna puts me at ease as this interview begins. We’re at his tennis academy in Yelahanka, Bengaluru, and Bopanna ushers me to a courtside bench.
Young teenagers are hitting the ball around and watching the doubles ace, who is in the city ahead of the Rogers Cup in Toronto. It’s a difficult schedule, but he’s happy to do it. “So after I got back from Wimbledon, I’m heading to Canada this week, on Friday, and going to practice tennis for 5 days there before the tournament begins.”
After this, the 36-year-old heads to the Olympic Games in the hopes of winning India doubles and potentially, mixed doubles gold.
Is it difficult, especially when one is not young and quick with recovery? “When you’re younger, your body heals quicker, that’s all. Age otherwise is all in the mind.”
But the Bengaluru-born player credits his team with helping him sustain those levels of fitness. “My physio, my masseuse, my team, all of them play a big part in making me who I am. Keeping my spirits up. Keeping me healthy and fit. Watching my diet, what I eat. All of them play a part in it.”
34-year-old Serena Williams just won her 22nd Singles Grand Slam. 36-year-old Venus Williams just finished in the semi-finals of the singles and won a doubles title with her sister. And at 36, Rohan Bopanna is consistently ranking among the best doubles players in the world – in a time when the doubles are becoming more and more competitive.
“Way more players are playing doubles now,” he says. “A lot of them who play singles are also playing doubles, and there are a lot of doubles specialists too. It’s no longer the case that the doubles is easier by any means.”
He has had a number of partners over the years, but Bopanna is currently paired with Romania’s Florin Mergea, and it is with Mergea that the Indian reached the top 10 – a move that also gave him a direct entry to Rio 2016.
But the pair have managed close finishes, only narrowly missing out on the quarterfinals at multiple Grand Slams. What does Bopanna have to say about this? “I’ve been with Florin just over a year, and we’re gelling, we’re hitting our stride gradually,” he says. “We’re enjoying the partnership, our play matches, and we are delivering good, consistent performances.”
Bopanna’s best performances came with Pakistani doubles ace Aisam-ul-haq Qureshi, and the pair, who were together in the earliest part of Bopanna’s doubles career, became known as the Indo-Pak Express.
The pair reached the finals of the 2010 US Open together, Bopanna’s best Grand Slam performance to date.
Although it was politicized, Bopanna stresses “at the end of the day, the players all know we are here for the game. Yes we play different flags, under different nationalities, but we’re doing it for the love of tennis.”
Another player subject to that very issue was women’s doubles number one Sania Mirza, whose marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik made repeated headlines.
Bopanna is a big fan of the 29-year-old. “For someone like Sania, to come where she has, having faced what she has, that is absolutely brilliant. She’s one of the best sportswomen the country has ever seen and her levels and talent are absolutely phenomenal.”
Bopanna opens up about Paes
There is another special athlete Bopanna is a fan of. “I think Leander Paes is the greatest athlete India has produced,” he says, in the midst of a media maelstrom claiming the Olympics-bound pair are having significant issues.
Bopanna, who had a direct ticket to Rio as a result of his ranking, had the liberty to choose his own partner for the men’s doubles, and chose top Indian singles player Saketh Myneni.
The only road for Paes to go to Rio was if Bopanna had selected him, which meant that for a brief time, Paes was left without an entry to Rio.
It was then that the All-India Tennis Association or AITA intervened, officially insisting the 17-time Grand Slam winner partner Bopanna. This later became an issue in public media, which declared that the two were in the midst of a serious spat.
But Bopanna clears the air. “There was never any real ‘issue’ with me and Leander. He’s one of the best sportsmen, the greatest athlete India has ever produced.”
“It is just that our playing styles do not match. For the association to force me to pick a partner like that was unnecessary. One always picks doubles partners based on playing styles and optimal coverage – and that is why I picked Myneni.”
The two recently took a convincing win at India’s doubles rubber in the Davis Cup against South Korea, and they have played together in the past. Acknowledging the Kolkata-born Paes’ talent, Bopanna says “I would have preferred not to be forced to choose a certain doubles partner, however.”
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Just then, a ball rolls across court, being hit by one of the teenagers at his academy. “It’s so important to give back to the sport,” Bopanna says, “and that’s why I started the academy in the first place. There’s no real system for checks and balances, or even a system for training. This aims to have kids interested, playing, have training at every level.”
The ace is personally invested in his academy to a significant degree. “I keep talking to the coaches, tell them to keep the kids, the youngsters constantly engaged in the sport. And most importantly, if the coaches, the players, anyone wants any advice from me, any help, any suggestions, I give them my details, they know they can contact me whenever they want.”
“At the end of it all,” Bopanna concludes, “it is so, so important for us, as sportspersons, to give back to the sport. It is the only way it is going to grow and become what we want it to be. There’s so much talent that’s just waiting to be seen.”