Demons in the head. That has always been Rohan Bopanna’s problem and that’s how it stays. In mixed doubles, it’s the man on the net that makes all the difference between the woman holding serve or conceding a break. Human physiology allows men to serve much harder and as such the woman partner’s service games are the most crucial aspect of getting past the opposition. Bopanna failed to play that pivotal role at the net as Sania Mirza’s Olympic dream crashed to the nether zone of a fourth finish.
Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic bested the Indians 6-1, 7-5 in an hour and 12 minutes to clinch bronze. It’s churlish to point out that this correspondent has been going on and on about just how important it was to have a man of Leander Paes’ ability to anchor India’s medal hopes. But that’s just what the missing factor out there was today. Mirza played largely solid and stayed lethal off her forehand. Bopanna was always the X factor of this combo and when it came to the crunch and he had to be explosive, he fizzled out. This was most exemplified by the three double faults that saw him concede a break in the opening game of the second set.
Given the way the draw turned out here what with all the withdrawals and rain induced juggling, it was possible to push the pair of Paes and Mirza into the draw even though their June 6 combined ranking did not augur well for a direct entry.
However, in her wisdom, Mirza chose her friendship with Bopanna over the logical choice for the best Indian pair for mixed doubles and it’s a choice she will have to live with. To his credit, Bopanna did allow glimpses to illustrate early in this tournament that he was emerging as a different player from the one who usually caves under pressure. However, playing fluent in earlier rounds is a far cry from performing when the crunch time of a medal match comes around.
The emotionally draining semifinal against Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram on Saturday seemed to have left the Indians bereft. Bopanna was desolate in the post-match interaction with reporters after that match and it appears that he never really shook off the angst. Just two matches ago, his form made it appear that Bopanna had made the necessary leap of faith and was now a different player altogether. But that mental fragility of his surfaced at crucial moments in the semifinals, like that double at 2-0 in the super tiebreak on Saturday to yield back the initiative after leading and then that muffled easy smash at 3-8 thereafter, and the same was the case in the bronze playoff.
The first set seemed to set the tenor for the match as the Indians seemed to have no fight left in them as they went through the motions. With momentum firmly in the Czech corner, it appeared that this was set to be a no-contest. However, the pair of Bopanna and Mirza did well to claw back into the game in the second set as an incredible reflex volley by Bopanna saw the Indians get ahead 2-1. They bolstered that lead by breaking Hradecka in the next game as Mirza’s brilliantly angled short cross court forehand made it 3-1. It was then that Bopanna was broken again at love, with one double fault thrown in to aid the Czechs along.
In the end at 5-5, with the match back on serve and Mirza looking to hold to stay in the game, she committed two double faults even as a lucky net cord allowed a Stepanek volley to break. Hradecka was solid off the ground and kept her cool as a Mirza forehand return was dumped in the bottom of the net to seal the debate over any possibility of a medal.