Rohan Bopanna is set to be among the top-10 in world men’s doubles rankings when the new list comes out on Monday post the French Open. Rules say a top-10 player can partner a far lower-ranked player and still be assured of an entry in the Rio Olympics doubles draw.
However, that does not mean that Bopanna has free rein to choose who he wants to play with. The team is chosen by the national tennis association’s selection body and without the stamp of that committee, no entry will be accepted.
The furore over selection issues before the London Olympics was one of the most embarrassing episodes in Indian tennis history. Then, Leander Paes was in the top-10 and wanted to partner Bopanna. But, Mahesh Bhupathi had partnered Bopanna that year on the Tour and the two had built up their challenge for the Games. Immense political pressure was applied on national tennis association president Anil Khanna to come around to nominating the two together despite the wishes of the selection committee.
Then, Bhupathi probably had a better case for being paired with Sania Mirza in mixed doubles as the two had won the French Open in the run up to London. However, once the federation was muscled into clearing the names of Bopanna and Bhupathi together, thus leaving Paes to partner Vishnu Vardhan (then ranked 326 in singles), it chose to partner Mirza and Paes for the mixed. That had miffed Mirza, who had lashed out in a strongly-worded statement.
As such, the federation’s main priority this time around is to keep things quiet. It is also very clear that there is no better combination in the men’s doubles field than Bopanna and Paes. Only this combo has an outside chance of a medal. The selection committee is quite certain that there will be no confusion on this front. As far as mixed doubles goes, the committee does not really have to announce the team just yet. Mixed doubles has a spot sign-in and entry for that closes on August 9. As of now, only the combined rankings of Mirza and Bopanna will allow them to qualify for the 12 direct entries that the mixed draw of 16 allows.
However, with Paes defending few points in the coming month, he may well jack up his ranking given that the Tour moves to grass, which is one of the veteran’s favourite surfaces.
That, then, is Bopanna’s main fear. One suspects he would prefer partnering Paes for the doubles, provided he is assured that Mirza’s wishes in mixed doubles pairings are not trifled with again. She is likely to partner him. The lure of mixed is that it allows the best chance for a medal given its small field. If Mirza does not want to partner Paes, the national federation is unlikely to push her this time. After all, Khanna owes her for putting a lid on the controversy last time around by not refusing to go with Paes.
The selection committee is set to finalise the mixed pairing when the International Tennis Federation sends the list of those eligible to make the cut. It needn’t be in any hurry to decide that pairing on June 11, when the Indian Olympic tennis team will be announced.
Now, if by August 9, Paes is in scintillating form and Mirza chooses to go with him (though as of now the analogy of a snowflake in hell comes to mind), that will be a whole new scenario.