Rohan Bopanna is a man on a mission. At 40, he does not think much about his tennis career these days. With his personal goals taking a back seat, the 2017 French Open mixed doubles champion is focused on his academy at the Sports School in Bengaluru.
The goal is to groom champions who can go on to achieve a lot more than what Bopanna himself did for India — in addition to the Roland-Garros mixed doubles crown with Gabriela Dabrowski, he made the final of the 2010 US Open doubles with Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and there were his heroics at the Davis Cup in 2010, where he played a decisive role in India’s triumph over Brazil, taking the country back to the World Group for the first time since 1998.
Life around the world may have gone haywire due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it is a lively training session on the courts as one walks into the picturesque locale of the Sports School deeply entrenched in nature.
There are familiar faces such as national men’s champion Niki Poonacha and women players Sharmadaa Balu and Sravya Shivani. Sharmadaa is learning the art of coaching, even as she trains to return to the professional circuit. Talented young players like Rethin Pranav and Ritabrata Sarkar go through the drills with enthusiasm.
Having wound up the 2020 season, and having undergone a few dozen Covid-19 tests in the US and Europe, Bopanna is happy to be back home guiding the players.
Chief coach Balachandran Manikkath explains the process and progress with regard to providing 60 scholarships to deserving candidates in different age groups. “Our focus is player development, done systematically with professionals handling each role — training the players appropriate to their age and level, which will help them become good professional players,” he says.
Balachandran has tremendous experience in coaching, and he continues to guide the country’s No. 1 player, Prajnesh Gunneswaran.
For the academy, it was important to have a good start, and that was done through physical testing. “Strength and conditioning expert Cheston Pinto has been involved with the academy from day one. We do musculoskeletal screening for every player when they join. We can measure the improvement periodically,” Balachandran explains.
But the academy is not aiming at straightaway unearthing Grand Slam champions.
“The vision is to develop tennis players the right way, as is done in different countries that have a good tennis structure,” Balachandran says. The idea is to have a lot of good players, competing hard and pushing each other at the local and national level, to improve the overall standard.
Along with good training, competition is key to growth. Bopanna has already planned to conduct events at the academy to find the missing link in the pathway to player development.
Balachandran is also keen on educating the coaches and, in fact, has been planning to introduce a three-month diploma course for coaches at the academy. “A good academy, apart from facilities, needs good coaches. That is why I ran an online training programme for the coaches, and did 27 sessions of one hour each. It was good motivation for the coaches,” he says. Balachandran also does a two-hour session for the junior coaches — who are assigned clear tasks and trainees — once a week.
“We have players of different calibres and levels. So, the players can train with those who are better than them and also those not as good as them,” Balachandran says.
Bopanna explains the anxiety of parents about their wards always training with better players.
“If that is the logic, I cannot practise with anyone when I come to the academy. Then who do (Rafael) Nadal, (Roger) Federer or (Novak) Djokovic train with? It does not work that way,” he says.
Bopanna, a former world No. 3 in doubles who narrowly missed out on an Olympic medal in mixed doubles in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 with Sania Mirza, understands the significant role parents play. He wants them to trust the coaches and the process, discouraging them from coaching or building fear through a negative attitude.
Spacious lockers rooms have been built for the boys and girls at the academy so they can soak in their own thoughts, away from any interference. Bopanna understands player requirements and is sensitive to their needs to bring out the best from each player.
After not being accepting by the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy in Chennai and not getting a scholarship to the Batra Tennis Centre run by Nandan Bal in Pune, Bopanna spent five years training with Nandan and his team of coaches to build his professional career. Balachandran was one of the coaches at the Batra centre, and Bopanna naturally has high respect for his three decades of experience.
“I used to cycle 15km for tennis. I did it for four years. In the fifth year, my dad agreed to buy me a bike,” Bopanna recalls about his hard journey.
But the Coorg native concedes that he missed out on “tennis-specific fitness” in his formative years.
“In the juniors, you just focus on fundamentals, strength and movement. I had the game style to compete with the best, but was relatively slow on my feet,” he says.
At the last national championships in Delhi, the head coach of Bopanna’s academy, Sujith Sachidanand, guided Poonacha to the men’s title, and the centre – which currently has seven hard courts, with three clay courts in the works – does have competent coaches with the ability to execute Bopanna’s vision.
Bopanna is quite positive about the talent of Indian kids and the abundance of knowledge in the country for training tennis players. The trick is to put everything together without looking at the whole exercise as a profitable business. Many do good business through tennis, but at the academy, Bopanna is far too committed to player development. There is a certain clarity and a guarantee that the whole exercise will not be reduced to a simple business.
At the high-altitude centre, with players training on high bouncing balls, they work with a vision and purpose. Be assured, world-class tennis players can be made in India!