Indian doubles team — to Rio via Paris?

The French Open may help decide India’s basic men’s doubles combination for the Olympics. Rohan Bopanna, who missed the top-10 cut last time, is clear that he has to make the grade this time, while Leander Paes, who has slipped into the 50s in men’s doubles, needs to boost his ranking in order to team up with Bopanna, who is the selectors’ obvious choice.

Leander Paes is quite keen on playing the mixed doubles with Sania Mirza at the 2016 Olympics.   -  Getty Images

Most athletes aim for a good run to the Olympics, with the hope that they would peak when it matters. Some, however, keep a low profile but prepare tirelessly, as they know that the Olympics is a different proposition, for what one does in the run-up to the Games does not really guarantee success at the quadrennial event.

With four Grand Slam events in a year, the tennis players attain peak form regularly and hope to sustain their good work at the Olympics once every four years.

India has been eyeing a second Olympic medal in tennis ever since Leander Paes won the men’s single bronze in Atlanta in 1996, behind Andre Agassi (gold) and Sergi Bruguera (silver).

The world-beating team of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi made five attempts and came close to an Olympic medal in Athens, where the duo lost the bronze medal play-off to Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia.

 

So, form does not provide any clue to India’s fortunes in the Olympics. In fact, even the selection committee does not take into account the brilliant form of players, as was the case last time for the 2012 London Olympics. Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi had won the French Open mixed doubles title and possibly believed that they could repeat the performance on the grass courts of Wimbledon at the London Olympics. However, it was Leander who played the mixed doubles with Sania at the Games. In order to strike a balance, the All India Tennis Association had to accede to Mahesh and Rohan Bopanna playing as a pair, for they had prepared together through the season. The AITA also had to give Leander a solid chance of winning a medal and so asked him to play the men’s doubles with Vishnu Vardhan, who was relatively a rookie.

Yet, it will be interesting to follow the French Open this time. Firstly, World No. 1 Sania will be aiming to complete a career Slam with Martina Hingis, with the pair having won Wimbledon, U.S. Open and the Australian Open on the trot. Then Bopanna, who was ranked a career best No. 3, has been showing promise of winning a Grand Slam men’s doubles title for some time. His recent performances on clay have been encouraging too.

However, more than Sania or Bopanna, it will be Leander who will be watched with interest. The 42-year-old player won a Challenger doubles title recently in Korea — his first Challenger title since 2000. His rankings having slipped into the 50s in men’s doubles, it will be important for Leander to boost his rank in order to team up with Bopanna, who is the selectors’ obvious choice.

The cut-off for the Rio Olympics entries is June 6, the day after the French Open ends at Roland Garros. Leander is quite keen on playing the mixed doubles with Sania at the Olympics. Sania is one with a Midas touch and looks set to add an Olympic medal to her extraordinary career.

In London in 2012, Sania and Leander ran into top seeds and eventual gold medal winners, Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, in the quarterfinals. Mirnyi and Azarenka won, 7-5, 7-6 (5), in a match that was played over two days owing to rain.

The task for anyone who wants to team up with Sania in the Olympics is to make the men’s doubles team first. Then, the ranking of the aspiring partner has to be strong enough to earn an entry into the Draw of 16. At the London Games, Sania was ranked No. 18, while Leander was No. 5. Some of the top-10 players like Robert Lindstedt of Sweden, Andy Murray of Britain and Samantha Stosur of Australia needed an ‘ITF place entry’ to make the mixed doubles draw. That should give a clear indication of how tough it is to make the draw.

The French Open may help decide India’s basic men’s doubles combination for the Olympics. Bopanna, who missed the top-10 cut last time, is clear that he has to get into the top-10.

“Last time the cut-off for Olympics was 68 or so in men’s doubles. With me on 13 and Leander on 54 at the moment, there is no guarantee of an entry. If we drop in rank, and with no wild cards, there may not be an Indian doubles team in the Olympics,” said Bopanna.

Leander will be playing with a new partner at the French Open. Both Bopanna and Leander will have to improve upon their last year’s performance (they failed to get past the third round) in Paris to make any headway in their quest to make it to Rio.

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