Inscrutable Indian tennis

Rohan Bopanna has great admiration for Leander Paes, a magician at the net, as he showed us in the French Open mixed doubles final in Paris only recently, but chooses to place his faith in a younger and more eager player for the Rio Olympics. Indian tennis is indeed a big mystery.

When Leander Paes was a Top-10 doubles player, he wanted Rohan Bopanna as his partner in the London Olympics, but did not get his wish fulfilled.

Now, Rohan Bopanna, a Top-10 player in doubles, wants to play with Saketh Myneni in the Rio Olympics, but he too does not get his wish fulfilled.

Bopanna, 36, has great admiration for Leander, 42, a magician at the net, as he showed us in the French Open mixed doubles final in Paris only recently, but chooses to place his faith in a younger and more eager player.

Indian tennis is a big mystery. Anybody would normally be more than willing to play with Leander Paes.

If we attempt to get to the root of the issue, we would find that it is the pride of the champions, which at times borders on selfishness, that is the major reason for all the problems that crop up at the most inopportune moments.

The self-hypnosis that “I am the best in the world”, a mantra that helps the players reach beyond their limits, can often put off the others.

Yet, without pride, the champions cannot be what they are. Therefore, it is important to view them in full rather than in parts (good and bad).

For a player who had won the men’s singles bronze medal — behind Andre Agassi and Sergi Bruguera — at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, long before he had reached the Top-100 in the world, Leander has often been criticised, in muted voices though, for not pulling his weight in quest of a medal in doubles.

Leander, who is fascinated by Sania Mirza’s game and had expressed his desire to play alongside her in mixed doubles in Rio, missed a great chance to win a medal on his favourite surface, the grass courts of Wimbledon, in the 2012 London Games. In the quarterfinals, Leander and Sania lost a close battle to the eventual gold medal winners, Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.

Earlier, the Indians had knocked out Ana Ivanovic and Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia 6-2, 6-4 in the first round. Perhaps a seeding could have ensured a medal for Leander and Sania. The seedings closed at a combined rank of 11 then.

For Rio, Sania and Bopanna will have a combined rank of 11, but whether they are seeded this time will be known only when the mixed doubles teams are identified.

The AITA (All India Tennis Association) often draws flak from all quarters for its decision on the doubles combinations. However, one has to concede that it has been fair for the best part.

Sania was not amused when she was marked as Leander’s mixed doubles partner for the London Olympics, as she had won the French Open mixed doubles title with Mahesh Bhupathi. This was because, after denying a Top-10 player his choice, the National federation had to give him a fair chance for winning a medal. Therefore, Sania was asked to team up with Leander in mixed doubles.

Similarly, Leander, ranked No. 46, is definitely much superior to anyone else to partner Bopanna. This despite the fact that the way he had played the doubles with Bopanna — the last time they had played together — in the Davis Cup against the Czech Republic in September 2015, without any energy or enthusiasm, would have made anyone sceptical about the strength of the two as a doubles combination.

Each one is right in his or her own way. But it was impossible to deny a seventh Olympics to the most inspirational Indian tennis player for the last 27 years, even though the authorities said that such a thought did not influence their selection.

The lack of wild cards this time in the Olympics and the fact that both Yuki Bhambri and Saketh Myneni were grounded due to injuries at a crucial stage of the season did not help. Yet there were options to ensure an Indian entry in both the doubles and mixed doubles, as the Indian combinations were relatively better in the Asian continent, thus leading to an ITF place in the Olympic list on grounds of regional representation.

Indian tennis has indeed come a long way since the time when the ITF (International Tennis Federation) had offered Nirupama Vaidyanathan and Manisha Malhotra an entry for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In the last edition, Somdev Devvarman, ranked No. 418, got a wild card entry. Vishnu Vardhan was able to play doubles on a wild card with Leander Paes. Vardhan went on to get an entry in the singles draw as well, as an alternate despite his rank of 302. Olivier Rocchus (105) of Belgium, Dmitry Tursunov (138) of Russia and Lleyton Hewitt (158) of Australia were the only other players not in the Top-100 to feature in the singles draw of the London Games.

Sania Mirza, ranked No. 18 then, needed an ITF place to team up with 502nd-ranked Rushmi Chakravarthi for the mixed doubles in London.

Finally, for people who are tired of seeing Leander prolong his career so well on a tennis court, it may be mentioned that he is inspired by Martina Navratilova, who won her last Grand Slam mixed doubles title at the age of 49, with Bob Bryan at the U.S. Open in 2006. Three years earlier, Navratilova had bounced back into the circuit and won the Australian Open and Wimbledon with Paes.

For many, Rio may be the last hurrah. But do not be surprised, if Leander tunes himself nicely, and says, “Here I come” for Tokyo 2020!

Love him or hate him, but you just cannot ignore him.

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