A pall of gloom descended on the tennis world a couple of days back with the 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer announcing his heartbreaking decision to withdraw from the Rio Olympics 2016, besides pulling the plug on the remainder of the season. It had largely been an injury-plagued season for the maestro which saw him undergoing a knee surgery in February. The recovery process along with his hobbled back cost him a chance to play quite a few key tournaments that most importantly included the French Open.
One of the biggest stars of the sports world, he would be sorely missed in what could have been the final Olympic Games for the soon-to-be-35 Federer.
There is no doubt that the former World No. 1’s absence will leave the Swiss tennis team largely weakened and vulnerable in front of other stronger opposition. The Beijing Olympic men’s doubles winner and the current World No. 1 women’s doubles player, Martina Hingis were the unanimous favourites for the mixed doubles gold before Federer’s announcement.
With deft skills at the net and an amazing tennis IQ, the dream team would have surely lighted up the courts at Rio de Janeiro and marched all the way to the title. After all, they are no strangers to success together.
Back in 2001, Hingis, then a superstar, teamed up with the upcoming 19-year-old Federer and the two conjured up magic to grab the Hopman Cup title – the premier mixed doubles team event in tennis. Their reunion at Olympics after 15 long years was much-awaited and much talked-about ever since Hingis came back into competition and resumed ruling the doubles circuit once again.
But with Federer opting out, not only does it dampen the Swiss team’s chances, it also puts them in a quandary as to who can partner Hingis in mixed. The situation, at the moment, looks quite tricky.
Right on the heels of the Federer blow, came another shocker for Switzerland. Their No. 2 women’s singles player Belinda Bencic, ranked World No. 16, too withdrew after failing to regain her sharpness following a wrist injury. The 19-year-old was supposed to be the women’s doubles partner for the Swiss Miss.
It is, unfortunately, a double whammy for the numero uno doubles player. Hingis is short of options as the Swiss No. 3 player Viktorija Golubic is already committed to playing doubles with the Swiss singles No. 1 Timea Bacsinszky. Unless Swiss Tennis can find Bencic’s substitute on time, Hingis would be deprived of even participating in the mixed doubles competition.
No matter how much miserable the situation currently is for Swiss fans, it goes without saying that the unfortunate few incidents have suddenly brightened up medal chances for other teams. One such combine that can benefit from it is India’s mixed doubles pairing of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna.
Ranked No. 1 and 15th respectively, Mirza’s ferocious forehands and her improved net game alongside Bopanna’s booming serves should now make them one of the favourites for a medal. Granted they did not play at the Wimbledon Championships which many had expected them to do, but they do have the valuable experience of being on the same side. As recently as last December, they had teamed up to play for Indian Aces at the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL).
With a rich 13 years of professional career, making the slightest adjustments should not be a difficult affair for either especially when the Indian tennis team is landing at Rio a few days ahead on August 1.
For Sania, this is her third trip to the mega quadrennial Games and in no previous appearance, was she this much self-assured and confident of her abilities. 37 doubles titles sparkle brightly on her resume apart from 3 Slam triumphs in mixed doubles. By now, she is a veteran and at the pinnacle of her career.
Bopanna too has come miles since the last edition of the sporting spectacle. Now a 14-time ATP Tour titlist, his versatility is noticeable lately and last year was the first time he tasted glory on all three surfaces in a season.
Both are a constant feature in the top tier of doubles tennis. Bubbling with self-belief and a hunger to succeed, they are ready to make the most of their biggest and most lucrative opportunity to clinch a medal.
Sania herself has admitted in a recent interview that the mixed doubles competition is India’s best bet for a tennis medal in Olympics after 20 years.
“There are top mixed doubles players from the world coming to compete. There will be world’s top 10 players; it will surely be a challenging event. But at the end of the day, mixed doubles is the best bet we have in tennis to win a medal,” said the 29-year-old.
The path is not trouble-free, though. There can be other star-studded mixed doubles combinations that can potentially dash the hopes of the Indians. Rafael Nadal and Garbine Muguruza are a team that have been gaining attention especially after the Spanish No. 1 woman’s memorable fortnight in Paris that culminated in the French Open singles win.
It remains to be seen how the Beijing Olympic singles winner Nadal feels in his very first event right after a lengthy layoff caused by a wrist injury. The reigning Wimbledon singles champion, Andy Murray, too can upset the applecart if he takes part in all the three possible categories. Apart from the singles gold, he is the defending silver medalist in mixed doubles which he scooped up alongside Laura Robson in front of a roaring home crowd in London.
This time, it is Heather Watson who has strengthened her bid for a place in the mixed doubles team after her emotional Wimbledon win. Murray and Watson, having already joined forces at this year’s Hopman Cup, can certainly be a pair to watch out for.
The ever-menacing Serena Williams can be another threat if she and one of the Bryan Brothers are ultimately selected. Both are defending their London gold medals in their respective doubles categories and it is needless to say, they will be hot favourites in mixed too if they enter.
The final list of 16 teams is not yet known and it is up to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to make the final call based on the nominated players who will be present in Brazil.
But there is no denying that with the deadly Federer-Hingis partnership not materializing, the door has indeed opened slightly for other contenders. Being in the best phase of their careers, can seasoned doubles exponents like Mirza and Bopanna grab this opportunity with both hands to engrave their names in Olympic record books?
For the countless Indian tennis lovers, it is an impatient wait till August 14 to know the answer.Published 29 Jul 2016, 14:11 IST