For too long Rohan Bopanna has been the man in waiting. Despite his obvious talent and good showing on the men's doubles tour, somehow the man from Coorg seemed to stay a side actor in the soap opera of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. While those two doubles rock stars whined and moaned and threw petulant fits that kept tennis followers in this country continuously entertained for the last decade and a half, the genial Bopanna continued to grow as a player. Along the way he was labelled Bhupathi's sidekick, accused of all kinds of manipulation by Paes and generally relegated to the fringes of the silliest drama in Indian tennis in which two men with huge egos reduced the sport to a spectacle akin to a catfight.
But it seems Bopanna is set to laugh the hardest. For, he's just coming out of his shell and into his own. Currently placed at 13, he is India's highest ranked men's doubles player. At 35, the senior member of the Davis Cup squad has the respect of his team members and the trust of the singles guys who turn to him for advice. Bopanna has always been the most straightforward guy in the tennis bunch that figure on the Indian fan's radar. The laidback 6'3" does not mince words and rams them down a bit like that bazooka serve of his. Bopanna does not seem to believe in taking prisoners.
But still, your correspondent warms him up with about ten minutes of chatter before getting to the meat of this interaction. Is there more camaraderie in the team now that the friction between Paes and Bhupathi is no longer a factor?
No more camps
"Correct. Definitely." Bopanna's like that. He shoots straight. "And it makes a huge difference," he carries on, not wanting to stop. "In a team you need to have great camaraderie otherwise it is very tough. Especially for a junior coming in… he is not sure about somebody having some friction… he is not sure what to do… how to handle the situation… then he uses his own judgement and maybe doesn't handle the pressure well. When everybody is relaxed, when everybody is in a good mood… a player plays better."
Something incredible happened three years ago to further enhance the bonhomie. For the first time the team's number one singles player did not act selfish and instead looked to build a close-knit group for the future. Somdev Devvarman decided that the formula for division of prize money was far too skewed in favour of the top-ranked singles player. He spoke to the second best guy Yuki Bhambri and came up with a new division which even gave the reserve players a piece of the spoils. That helped bond the team better? "For sure. 100%. No doubt. No doubt, it builds camaraderie."
Then why didn't anybody do it before? "I don't know. Maybe nobody thought of it as a team? Thought about themselves, right? Maybe that's what it was. When you think you want to help tennis in general for your country then that's when good thoughts come. When you think only of yourself then its different, right? You think differently," Bopanna lets one rip. The reader needs to know that Bopanna is not much for bombastic statements. He talks straight but seldom uses strong words like these. This is obviously an issue that has been simmering for a few decades and even he must have borne its ill effects.Another major flaw in our tennis structure has been the lack of help from seniors to struggling juniors. "It is changing now," asserts Bopanna. "It has obviously not happened and that's why the changes. It is slowly happening which is good. Now you see everybody is very happy in the dressing room. Everybody is happy to come out to Davis Cup and play and enjoy a week of practising and representing India." What he is too much of a nice guy to say is that at one time it was a struggle for even people like him. This correspondent was present at the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan in April 2012 where Bopanna played a dismal doubles match with Paes as partner. At that time, it appeared he had tanked. Now one knows that he just hated the atmosphere.
Before the London Olympics 2012, there was huge drama about team pairings. Bopanna and Bhupathi had played together on the tour for six months to prepare for the Games but the national federation wanted him to pair with Paes instead. That whole deal left the man scarred. Have he and Paes figured out any plans for Rio 2016?
"To be honest we haven't. After a long time I am playing with a partner with whom I have been doing well consistently (world doubles no 14, Florin Mergea of Romania). I want to stick with that and I don't want to suddenly change.
"I learn from my experiences. When I looked at keeping that as my sole focus -- London Olympics - I got a partner and trained six months everybody said it's not happening… Now I am just focussing on short term goals. When Rio comes I will be totally committed… There's no support or anything (from the federation) but suddenly a month before you get a call (from selectors) and are told you do this and do that. In my mind we had planned and I don't want to make that mistake again."
And what's the possibility of Sania Mirza and him playing mixed doubles at Rio? "Of course there is a possibility. There is a 50-50 shot. Given the way she has been playing and her performance, she has every right to decide. She is number one in the world."
One can't help but sneak in that he is also perhaps a better friend of hers than Paes. "We are better friends but end of the day she has to see who she is compatible with and has a chance with."
The two have history of doing well together. "Of course! I played Hopman Cup (the Asian tournament that's now defunct) with her - we never lost there. But she has also played with Leander at Asian Games." Bopanna is very clear that the mixed medal is the one that's the most likely at Rio: "I would love to play with her, no doubt that's the best shot we will have… whoever plays with Sania... as she is playing the best tennis of her career right now."
Wife knows best
He has a trace of grey in his stubble now and almost three years into his marriage, he is far more relaxed as tennis player. "My best is yet to come. I have only now begun to be mature seasoned pro. Now, in fact, the tour is more fun with my wife (Supriya, a psychologist) along. Earlier I used to go from hotel to airport and that was that. She now finds plays to watch, shows to go to… it's all so much more to look forward to."
All those years in the shadow of our two doubles maestros, did he think his time would eventually come? "It had to come, right? The question is how confident you are as a player and if you can keep performing. If you haven't been doing well I don't think you deserve that spot in the limelight. Right now, I feel very confident about the way I play."