At 43, there is little Rohan Bopanna hasn’t seen in a career spanning more than two decades and even less that he regrets or aspires to. His longevity as much a result of his stubbornness to push the limits as the dearth of challengers within the country, the ‘elder statesman’ of Indian tennis continues to be the star of the squad.
At the Delhi airport late on Wednesday night while leaving for what will certainly be his last Asian Games, the excitement among people rose only when Bopanna appeared even though others were already going through the formalities. He posed gamely for photographs and jibed with the youngsters, relishing his role as the leader of the pack. But all he wishes is for them to be aspirational.
“To inspire the next generation to be able to push all limits, no matter what juncture of your career you are at – it doesn’t matter whether you are just starting your journey or in the middle or the fag end of it. I feel the sporting career is so short if you can push all limits and still enjoy it, to be known as someone who persisted and constantly found ways to improve as an athlete, that would be my legacy,” Bopanna told Sportstar in an exclusive interaction soon after arrival here.
That’s easier said than done – it takes someone special to have the belief and ability to push himself for so long in a punishing sport and still remain at the top of his profession. That belief, Bopanna admits, is the only thing that matters for success.
“My nature as an athlete was such, I always wanted to find ways to bring in that 100 per cent. Maybe not everything was accessible back when we started but now, even though we have it all, faith and belief is all that matters. In 2021, at the age of 41, I went five months without winning a match. That’s when you start fighting your inner battles -- there’s always someone trying to say what or how you should do things but the athlete is the only one who is putting in the effort and time. You may have the best coach or mental trainer or physio -- if you don’t have belief in yourself, none of it matters,” he shrugged matter-of-factly.
As an outspoken advocate of rewarding merit without caveats, Bopanna continues to be vocal about how the Indian system needs to be more objective about assessing merit. “See, the fact is, in India, how you term any achievement kind of decides its value. I was the US Open runner-up. That might barely make a difference for someone who doesn’t know anything about tennis. But if you say I was the silver medalist, it relates very differently even though it means the exact same thing.
“Which is why yes, I absolutely feel there should be a clear criteria of achievement in each sport and if someone reaches that level, he should get the concerned award. He shouldn’t have to first reach a certain level, then worry about applying in the right way and format for an award and then also keep thinking about getting it or not. At the same time, you cannot compare sports – you need to take into consideration the competition, India’s position in a certain sport, the world level in it and everything,” he insisted.
And while the years pass on, Bopanna hinted he wasn’t averse to different roles either, so long as it makes a difference to the sport and the athletes. “Being in a position of power where athletes are important will mean something,” he signed off.
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