Charting separate courses
When the broad outline of the year gone by in Indian tennis is sketched, it is likely to make a grim reading, with the Olympic fiasco dominating the discussion. Deepti Patwardhan reports.sports Updated: Dec 22, 2012 01:31 IST
When the broad outline of the year gone by in Indian tennis is sketched, it is likely to make a grim reading, with the Olympic fiasco dominating the discussion.
The achievements: Mahesh Bhupathi winning the French Open mixed doubles with Sania Mirza, him and Rohan Bopanna finishing the year with the three Masters finals (Shanghai, Cincinnati and the elite World Tour Finals), and the Paris Masters crown reduced to footnotes.
It's been that kind of a year for the Indian duo. While their failures came under exaggerated scrutiny, the success was taken for granted.
"We believed we could make it work," says Bhupathi, having put in the yards at the training camp in Mumbai.
"Pretty much through the year people questioned the partnership, but the results in the past few months showed what we are capable of."
Not the best match
Strictly going by tennis ideals, it wasn't a match made in heaven. Both Bhupathi and Bopanna play on the backhand side and took some time to find their right place on the court.
The results were slow to come, and before they had a fair chance the Olympics and the controversy over the doubles pairing was upon them.
"The Olympics mess was easily the lowest point of my career," says Bhupathi.
"The first six months of the year were really tough," Bopanna reflects.
"No sportsman has to play under that much pressure. After the Olympics, we did really well, made three finals. It just shows that people need to just let us play; create a positive atmosphere: that's the only way sportspeople can thrive."
Though he has been on the pro circuit for well over a decade, it was the first time that Bopanna, 32, had faced this kind of scrutiny.
"You obviously feel the pressure," adds Bhupathi, who at 38 has endured more than his share of controversies.
"You feel like despite playing for India so long you are not being noticed, that people still question you."
After having battled the Indian tennis administration for going together for the Olympics, their second-round exit in London brought a deluge of ill-will from all quarters. Did he feel like he had to regain the respect from the fans?
"No," says Bhupathi.
"After having played for India for 17 years I don't think I need to do it. The same people who were against us, turned in our favour when we won in Paris."
While the AITA belatedly banned Bhupathi and Bopanna for dissent during the selection process, a Karnataka high court bench stayed the decision.
Now that he can play for India in Davis Cup, would he ever play with Leander Paes?
"Why would you ask me a question like that?" shoots back a bemused Bhupathi.
"Leander's 40, I'm 39. You want us to go and play against teams like Korea?"
Maybe not. But given that India is back in the Asia Oceania Group I, which includes Japan, Uzbekistan and Australia, all of whom have the firepower to beat India and where the doubles point could prove crucial, would he consider the move?
Bopanna steps in.
"This is a kind of question to get headlines, isn't it?" he says.
"Just a while ago we were talking about the young talent coming through the ranks and now we are back to having Paes and Bhupathi play the doubles.
"It was all right to have both of them play when Leander or Mahesh could play the singles if need be. What India needs right now is three singles players in the team. If one of the singles players gets injured someone should be able to step in," adds Bopanna.
Nostalgia can take a back seat then. The Paes-Bhupathi combine currently holds the record for the longest unbeaten steak in doubles in Davis Cup: 23, they haven't lost a match since 1997. And it is likely to stay at that.
"Sport isn't about emotion," counters Bhupathi.
"Sport is about winning. And the last two months are proof that Bhupathi-Bopanna is the best team for India at the moment."
The Davis Cup, though, is not an immediate concern. Having got together only for the Olympic year, Bhupathi and Bopanna will go their separate ways and begin the New Year with new partners.
Bhupathi, who is getting ready for his last year on the tour, will team up with world No 5 and nine-time Grand Slam champion Daniel Nestor of Canada.
"I am approaching it just like any other year. Its another opportunity for me," he says.
"I haven't set any targets for myself, but my partner has huge targets. He has been ranked number one with three different partners, so I will just be playing catch-up with him."
Bopanna will play with Rajeev Ram, an American of Indian origin.
And as they wrap up the three-week off-season training camp in Mumbai, fitter and stronger for the next year, Bhupathi and Bopanna would also like to believe that the worst as a team is behind them.