Soldiers of peace

Rohan Bopanna ...“I would love to play singles as much as I can, but right now I am doing very well in doubles and it has kept me going. So I am sticking with it.”-K. MURALI KUMAR

“We decided to play as much as possible together. We trained well and worked on joint drills. It has been paying off — we won a title and reached the quarters at Wimbledon. The going is good,” says Rohan Bopanna of his partnership with Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan. By Kalyan Ashok.

Anyone who had watched Rohan Bopanna as a junior in Bangalore would not have given him half a chance of becoming a Davis Cup player. He was a lanky boy, struggling to make even the round of eight at local tournaments. However, the youngster, who was put into tennis by his father M. G. Bopanna, a coffee planter in Coorg, was a quick learner. And he had fierce determination too.

Rohan was trained by Krishna Bhupathi (Mahesh's father) and later by Prahalad Srinath, a former player. He soon matured into a big-serving player and by 2002 donned the India colours.

Rohan, at six feet three inches and with a booming first serve and solid ground strokes, has done quite well for himself in the Davis Cup, and over the years, he has established himself as an integral part of the Indian team.

In recent years, Rohan's prowess in doubles has been taking him places. The 2010 season, in particular, has been an impressive one for the 30-year-old player, who won an ATP title in Johannesburg with his friend and partner Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan. The India-Pakistan pair also made its first Grand Slam quarterfinals at Wimbledon recently.

With two ATP doubles titles under his belt and eight runner-up spots, Rohan finds doubles to be all the more alluring now. In a chat with Sportstar, he talks of his game, his partnership with Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi and his plans.

Question: You seem to be taking the same route as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, switching from singles to doubles in the wake of better results?

Answer: If you look at it, my ranking in doubles is far better than in singles. And it is doubles that is keeping me on the circuit now and helping me earn my bread and pay for the tour. Yes, I would love to play singles as much as I can, but right now I am doing very well in doubles and it has kept me going. So I am sticking with it. Yes, you can say that I have taken the route of Leander and Mahesh, and I hope to emulate their success as well.

Reaching the doubles quarterfinals at Wimbledon with Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi must have been special. How do you rate your performance?

Wimbledon is ‘The' event and it has been my dream to do well there. Also the Grand Slam events are the keys to improving one's rankings. It has been a tremendous effort to enter the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and we hope to keep that momentum going.

Your partnership with Aisam has been successful. You both go a long way, playing as teenagers and hitting it off so well. Can you say something about your relationship?

You are right, I first met Aisam as a 14-year-old when he had come to play here as a junior. We first played together in 2003 in England, but it was during this season that we decided to concentrate and play as much as possible together. We trained well and worked on joint drills. It has been paying off — we won a title and reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. The going is good. The fact that we hit it off well, both on and off the court, makes things easy for us.

How do you complement each other on the court?

Both of us are good servers. He is much better at the net while I can take care of the back court with my ground strokes. And we know when exactly to go for the winners and so we give space to each other and play with a lot of understanding.

You and Aisam are Ambassadors of ‘Peace Through Sport', an initiative of Prince Albert of Monaco. Can you throw some light on that?

Aisam was already an Ambassador of Peace and I became one this year. ‘Peace Through Sport' is a forum founded by Prince Albert II of Monaco to bring peace in troubled regions around the world. I guess Aisam and I are the only tennis players in that forum, the rest being Olympians from other sport. Both of us belong to neighbouring nations that have troubled relations, and we hope to send a message across that we still can be friends and play as a team despite political differences. It might change a lot of people's minds, we hope to do our bit. There is a plan to play an exhibition match at the Wagah border, which, of course, needs clearance from both governments.

Do you feel that you would have been a much better singles player had you trained abroad at the outset of your career?

It is tough to say because one needs a lot of funds and my only support came from my parents and from whatever I could play at home, the Futures and the Challengers. Why me alone, it is tough for any Indian player to train abroad on his own without any support. We need a lot more tournaments in the country for our boys to earn points and we have just one ATP tournament (in Chennai). This is not the case with other countries especially the U.S. and in Europe.

You are now a seasoned Davis Cup player. What kind of feeling do you get when you play in this big event?

It is an immense honour to play for the country in Davis Cup. I first played for India in 2002. There have been several matches which are memorable including the 2003 World Group play-off against the Netherlands where I lost narrowly to Martin Verker in five sets, with the score-line in the decider being 12-10. My victory over Rik de Voest in the play-off against South Africa was another match that I cherish most.

It gave India a 2-0 lead and helped us to qualify for the 2009 tournament. Playing Davis Cup with Leander and Mahesh makes it very special, and it is great to be a part of the team with them.

Do you get to learn anything from them?

A lot; whenever I approach Leander or Mahesh, they never say no. They have always helped me with their advice because playing Davis Cup is a different ball game altogether. You need to learn and their advice has been very beneficial to me in my career.

There's going to be a lot more pressure on you once Leander and Mahesh leave the scene in Davis Cup. How do you plan to cope with it?

Pressure has always been there for me from 2002, but right now we have Somdev Devvarman who is playing well and Yuki is coming up. I am sure we will end up getting more players, but that again depends on the quality of the tournaments we have here and the sponsors.

Have you ever thought of competing in mixed doubles? You and Sania Mirza did so well together in the Hopman Cup a few years ago?

It depends on my doubles ranking — right now it is 38. Only in the Grand Slam events do we get to play the mixed doubles. If I keep improving my doubles ranking I could give mixed doubles a shot.

If the situation demands it, would you think of changing your doubles partner?

As long as things are working out fine (for us) and the results are there, I don't see any reason to change my partner. But then this is a professional sport, and God forbid something goes wrong when we wish to take our game to the next level. Maybe then we can think about it. Right now I am happy with Aisam.

What are your immediate plans?

I plan to play six or seven tournaments as a run-up to the U.S. Open. We also have the Davis Cup tie against Brazil in Chennai, followed by the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. It is a much busier schedule than last year.

Looking forward to the Davis Cup tie against Brazil?

I am really looking forward to the tie at home. It has been a long time since we played at home after Australia decided to withdraw last time. And the Chennai courts suit us well. Somdev did so well in the ATP Open. Leander and Mahesh will be there and the crowd has been terrific in Chennai. Yes, Brazil is a tough team with three of its players in the top 100, but I give India a 50-50 chance.

Do you follow any other sport?

Yes, all kinds of sport, from soccer and golf to basketball. And of course cricket.

Do you have any role model in tennis?

Earlier it used to be Stefan Edberg, now it is Roger Federer. He is such a shining example for tennis and a perfect gentleman off the court. I also like Rafael Nadal, he too is great to get along with.

Any ultimate goal?

Tennis is a lonely sport. Till you get to the top and have your own trainer, coach and the works, you have to slog your way through all by yourself. My goal is to win a Grand Slam doubles title. A dream now perhaps, but some day I would love to make it a reality.