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Aircel Chennai Open: Return of the Indo-Pak Express

  • Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi A New Year is always a good time for new resolutions. It provides an opportunity for fresh beginnings and ...
Modified 07 Nov 2014, 15:27 IST
ATP World Tour Finals - Day Five
Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi

A New Year is always a good time for new resolutions. It provides an opportunity for fresh beginnings and renewing old acquaintances. So, it seemed appropriate that with the year 2014 only a couple of hours away, Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan entered the centre court at the Aircel Chennai Open on the same side of the net for the first time in over two years.

Bopanna and Qureshi have had a long and complicated relationship over the course of their careers, even by the usual convoluted standards of tennis doubles combinations today. A cursory glance at the profiles of both players show some similarities and contrasts that make their combination quite fascinating. They are immediate peers, both 33 years of age. Bopanna is from the sylvan environs of Coorg in Karnataka, while Qureshi is from the bustling city of Lahore. Bopanna is tall, well-built, with a game built around a booming serve, while Qureshi is slighter, best known for his reflexes at the net. And of course, one is Indian, the other Pakistani.

Having known each other since their teenage years, they first played together as a doubles team in 2003. Typical of the wandering ways of the modern doubles professional, they both spent the next few years plying their trade with a number of different partners. In early 2010, they took the decision to get back together again. At that time, Bopanna had one ATP doubles title to his name, while Qureshi had none.

Over the course of 2010 and 2011, the duo would go on to win 4 ATP titles together, make a run to the doubles finals of the 2010 US Open, and debut at the ATP World tour Finals of 2011. The pair experienced the kind of rhythm, comfort, and most importantly, success, with each other, that every doubles combination dreams of. During those two years, their increased presence in the spotlight through their success on tour caught the imagination of the public, and the legend of the Indo-Pak Express was born.

Bopanna and Qureshi, realizing the unique opportunity presented by their pairing, also took up initiatives beyond the immediate scope of tennis. In Wimbledon, they caused a stir by wearing t-shirts with the message “Stop War, Start Tennis”. In recognition of their efforts at social harmony, they were awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2011. The Indo-Pak Express were no longer just a crack tennis outfit, they were a symbol of friendship between rival nations, of sport triumphing over politics. Everything seemed to point towards a feel-good story developing into a special tennis relationship.

And then, things unraveled. With an eye on the Olympics coming up in the summer of 2012, Bopanna made the decision to split with Qureshi, and team up with Mahesh Bhupathi instead. Qureshi expressed “shock” at the move, but took the decision well. Once again, the duo went their individual ways, and the Indo-Pak Express had been derailed. Their performances with new partners over the next couple of years did not yield the same success they had enjoyed earlier. While the Bopanna-Bhupathi combination in 2012-13 did result in two ATP titles, and a finals appearance at the World Tour Finals, these performances were overshadowed by the sordid controversies surrounding the choice of Indian representation at the Olympics, which was, ironically, the original reason for the break-up of the successful pairing. In the meanwhile, Qureshi also had only limited success with Jean-Julien Roger, his primary doubles mate, in this period.

Thus, it was almost with a sense of inevitability and relief, rather than shock and surprise, that the news was received of Bopanna and Qureshi teaming up once again for the 2014 season, beginning with the Chennai Open. Which brings us to their opening match today, a tough encounter against the defending champions, Stanislas Wawrinka and Benoit Paire.

Bopanna and Qureshi both looked quite sharp today, with the Indian belting down his big serves, and the Pakistani using his angled volleys at the net to great effect. What helped them was a lack of intensity seen from Wawrinka and Paire. In the tenth game of the first set, Wawrinka played an appalling service game to gift the set to the Indo-Pak Express. In the second set, Wawrinka continued to be the weak link, but his partner Paire made his presence felt, and contributed to tying the match at one set apiece.

In the super-tiebreak, the teams went neck-to-neck right through. Some scintillating shots were produced like a down-the-line pick up volley winner from Bopanna, off a thunderbolt drilled by Paire. Some bad errors resulted as well, like a Bopanna overhead smash into the net on match point. But the Indo-Pak Express got their chance again, and converted on their second match point. The latest innings of the partnership was on its way, with a 6-4, 4-6, 11-9 victory over the defending champions.

It was good to see the Bopanna-Qureshi combination back in action. Whether they were combining to come up with a winning rally over their opponents, or indulging in a chest-bump at an intense moment towards the end of the match, the chemistry from their earlier stint together did seem intact. With their performance today, it would not be unreasonable to now label them the favourites for the title. A decent run here at Chennai should hold the Indo-Pak Express in good stead for the tougher challenges that lie ahead in the year.

Hopefully, this will remain one New Year resolution which won’t be broken any time soon.

Published 01 Jan 2014, 10:38 IST
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