Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna pulled through a close contest in the first round of the men’s doubles event. HT file photo
"So, are they going to ban us if we lose in the first round?" Mahesh Bhupathi had joked to this correspondent on Sunday. As the two hour 26 minute encounter with the Belarus pair of Max Mirnyi and Alexander Bury on Monday stood poised at 6-6 in the third set, there were no smiles on the faces of Bhupathi and his big-serving partner Rohan Bopanna.
For the Indian pair this match was far more than any other first round encounter. With the amount of mud-slinging, arm-twisting and brinksmanship that the two had had to undergo to maintain their seven-month partnership leading into the Olympics, they just could not afford to lose. Matches can turn on a single lapse of judgement, on one point gone astray.
But that's for the aficionado to know and understand. For the casual fan, a Bhupathi-Bopanna loss would have been the final nail in the perception that these fellows talk too much, deliver little.
The ban that Bhupathi referred to was the one that the federation has been considering for their refusal to pair with Leander Paes at the Olympics.
The 7-6 (7), 6-7 (4), 8-6 victory did lend credence to their assertion that they meant business together.
Such was the level of tennis and the intensity of the encounter that there was no break of serve till 6-6 in the third till the Bury serve cracked. Conceding little quarter and scampering after each half chance had seen the Indians carve out their sixth break point of the match. Bury's first serve boomed in wide on the Bhupathi backhand, cramping him.
Amazingly enough, the 38-year-old veteran flailed back a backhand jab that sailed up to Mirnyi. 'Ouch!' thought your correspondent. But perhaps someone up there also believes that the cause of the two is just for Mirnyi hurried into the overhead and the mishit allowed Bopanna to serve out the match.
"What luck? I forced that error," Bhupathi bristled at the suggestion later before following it up with a sly smile. "We wanted this real bad. They were playing like a team possessed, but I guess we wanted it more."
Asked if the controversy before the event still weighed on his mind or was the slate clean to bear the pressure of the Games, Bopanna said: "All that is forgotten and long gone as far as I am concerned. This is about staying focussed and looking at it match to match. There's no time for all that." Looking at the positives from the win, he added: "Pulling off a match like this takes our confidence higher. It's a good way to start."
Bhuapthi fitness has been a matter of concern, but the veteran won't entertain any doubts on that quarter. "This is grass, points are short. I won't be tiring out for sure." To ensure his legs stay along for the party, Bhupathi will be doing his usual ice baths and availing of the services of his physio.
As he left, however, he could not help but laugh: "So, no ban now?"
In the other men's dobules match featuring an Indian pair, Leander Paes and Vishnu Vardhan beat the Dutch pair of Robin Haase and Jean-Julien Rojer 7-6, 4-6, 6-2 in an hour and 53 minutes.
Priceless gold | Results: day 3 | India at Games | International flavour