The final moments of Rohan Bopanna’s farewell Davis Cup tie summed up the Indian’s commitment to the men’s tennis team competition for the last 21 years. With the World Group II tie against Morocco already sealed, Digvijaypratap Singh was making his debut against Walid Ahouda in a dead rubber on Sunday.
And for most part of the 23-year-old Singh’s match, which he won 6-1, 5-7, [10-6], it was Bopanna, 20 years senior to him, who sat in the captain’s seat beside the chair umpire, also helping him with the ice towels as the humid conditions took a toll.
Bopanna, who also made his Davis Cup debut in a singles dead rubber against Australia in 2002 in Adelaide, had announced in June about his decision to retire from the event and that the tie against Morocco would be his 33rd and final one.
However, his demeanour during Singh’s match showed that he could be back in India colours soon in another capacity and he did not deny it. “If there is an opportunity (for captaincy), I will certainly look at it. I can only see myself helping these players. I have spent so many years playing Davis Cup, week in week out, through the tough moments and the big wins. If the opportunity comes, would love to be in a place to guide these guys,” said Bopanna in the post-match press conference.
Sunday’s play had begun with the two teams level at 1-1 after the two singles matches. With the sun beating down on the blue hard court at the Vijayant Khand Mini Stadium in Gomti Nagar and a sizeable crowd in attendance, Bopanna joined team captain Rohit Rajpal and doubles partner Yuki Bhambri along with the Moroccan counterparts at the net for the national anthems. There was nothing but pride on the veteran’s face, having given it his all in the last two decades and ready to perform one last time.
In 2002, 17 years before the introduction of the new Davis Cup format which reduced the duration of the ties from three to two days and the matches from best-of-five to best-of-three sets, Bopanna was selected for the national side predominantly as a singles player with established stars such as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in the team led by Ramesh Krishnan.
India, a three-time runner-up (1966, 1974, 1987), had last made a deep run in 1993 when it reached the semifinals. Since then, it had mostly struggled to either progress beyond the first round of the World Group or saw its campaign ending in the Asia-Oceania qualifiers itself as Paes, bronze medallist in singles at 1996 Olympics, had shifted his focus to doubles. Even after Bopanna joined the team, the fortunes of the team did not change much till Somdev Devvarman came into the picture as another promising singles player.
Devvarman and Bopanna helped the team script a sensational comeback from 0-2 down to beat a much-higher ranked Brazilian team in 2010 in Chennai and qualified for the World Group. That tie is still the fondest Davis Cup memory for Bopanna.
“Especially being 0-2 down and coming back to win the fifth match (against Ricardo Mello). In the span of 48 hours, you have so many mixed emotions and a format like this one can give you that. Otherwise, you go for a tournament, lose the final or Olympics, you lose and it takes you four more years to come back,” he said.
“From the lowest point of feeling that evening (after day one) and going to sleep, knowing the fact that there’s a chance but still, in the back of your mind, it could finish the following day and you could be out 3-0. Undoubtedly, that tie was such a big and monumental tie to be part of and we went back to the World Group after a few years,” Bopanna remembers.
The year 2010 also had Bopanna making it to his first Grand Slam final in men’s doubles with Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan at the US Open. His second appearance in a Major final in the same category took place in New York itself last week.
With Bopanna turning to doubles full-time, Paes and Devvarman still around along with the emergence of Bhambri as a singles player, Indian seemed to have a strong team despite Bhupathi’s retirement in 2013. However, it just could not get over the line in clutch situations against opponents such as Serbia in 2014 and Czech Republic in 2015.
Under the new Davis Cup format since 2019, India has never reached the qualifiers to fight for a place in the Davis Cup Finals. In fact, it hit a new low in February this year when it got relegated to World Group II after a 2-3 defeat against Denmark in a Group I Play-off with Bopanna and Bhambri losing the crucial doubles rubber.
However, on Sunday, Bopanna and Bhambri redeemed themselves.
World No. 7 Bopanna showed his class as he and Bhambri stormed to a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Elliot Benchetrit and Younes Lalami Laaroussi in just 71 minutes.
One of the highlights of the match came towards the end of the first set when Bopanna stepped in on a second serve from Younes, which landed near the T, and hit a glorious inside-out single-handed backhand return winner. Bopanna grew up and learnt tennis from his father in the 1980s, a period where the single-handed backhand was used by a majority of the players including his idol and six-time Grand Slam champion Stefan Edberg.
The match ended with Benchetrit netting a return to a deft backhand crosscourt sliced volley from Bopanna. As the spectators stood up from their seats and began to record the aftermath on their mobiles while cheering the Indian pair, Bopanna hugged Bhambri and shook hands with the Moroccan players before returning to his bench and taking out another jersey, with his first name written on its back. He placed it on the court, signalling the end to his Davis Cup career with 23 wins before waving the tricolour and acknowledging the crowd.
His entourage of family and friends, many of whom had travelled from the Southern part of the country, joined him in celebrations while wearing customised white t-shirts featuring a caricature of him holding the national flag.
Rajpal, who along with Singh, lifted Bopanna on his shoulders during the victory lap, revealed that the conversation regarding Bopanna’s retirement had been going on for the last two years. “Every time he told me about wanting to retire, he ended up reaching a Grand Slam final two or three months later. So, I told him not to do it,” he joked.
“We will miss him. Everybody looks up to him. Not just in doubles. His experience at bigger matches and bigger occasions. But we will be on the phone. We have travelled quite a bit together in these past few years. To know every player, it takes a couple of years. Even for a captain it is a learning experience. Now that we have the knowledge, to pass on that knowledge is important,” he added.
While he will be still be playing on the ATP Tour, the retirement of Bopanna marks the end of another chapter in the history of the Indian Davis Cup team and the next time a new-look side takes the court, in the World Group I play-offs in 2024, Rajpal feels that the singles players have to take more responsibility.
“We are a tough team and we put a lot of heart into the Davis Cup. When we are playing, we are a tough team to beat. At the same time, if we must beat top teams, then we certainly need to have very good singles performances from our players, because there are four points for singles. We need to develop more depth in terms of our singles in the team,” he said.
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