RIO DE JANEIRO
Rohan Bopanna has been for long the sideshow in Indian tennis. In the wake of legends of the sport like Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, an Indian doubles player would anyway struggle for public recognition. He would, after all, have to do something spectacular to step out of their shadow. At Rio, Bopanna is now on the verge of doing just that.
Bopanna has all along been an unwitting party to the various petty controversies that have engulfed Indian tennis over the years. The issues always stemmed from the acrimony between Paes and Bhupathi, and Bopanna was invariably drawn in. The man from Bengaluru has shown extraordinary loyalty to his friends over the years and as such he was labelled as Bhupathi’s man in the many battles that have been fought out in the murky underbelly of Indian tennis.
Your correspondent has interacted at length with Bopanna over the years and it was always obvious that the way he is projected by the mass media and the truth of the man are two divergent entities. But this projection has hurt him over the years. Not that Bopanna himself has been too bothered about his public image. This is one sportsman who actually doesn’t care too much about what is written about him.
However, after the selection fiasco leading up to the London Olympics (Bopanna had refused to partner Paes and went to the Games with Bhupathi instead) he was literally ostracised by the national federation. He was not considered for Davis Cup selection for nearly two years after and the Arjuna Awards committee kept throwing out his application without considering its merit. After all, if a man ranked in the top-10 in the world won’t get that award, then one wonders just who else deserves it. Bopanna went as high as third in the world in July 2013. Till date, he is a bit of a pariah for the powers that be, and just how that equation changes now that Paes is fading and Bopanna’s rising will make for interesting observation in the years to come.
Bopanna usually talks plain and many a times his deadpan style has been misinterpreted. Many a time his quotes have been twisted and he has come across as petty. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the same time, the more shrewd people in Indian tennis have manipulated his thought process many a times and he has bludgeoned his way on sans any thought for his broader public image.
Since he has never won a Grand Slam, despite coming close at the 2010 US Open, when he made the final with Pakistan’s Aisam Qureshi, there has always been a question mark on his ability to perform at the big stage. Now, there isn’t any sporting stage bigger than the Olympics and here he has got his game together to put India in line for a tennis medal. He just has to close out one more match in the company of Sania Mirza to get a medal of a brighter hue than the bronze Paes garnered at Atlanta.
The incredible run of Bopanna and Sania has also come as a relief for the beleaguered national tennis federation president Anil Khanna. The body has been derecognised by the sports ministry on account of an interpretation of the Sports Code. The ministry feels Khanna has violated the cool-off clause in the Code as he continues to head the federation for over two consecutive terms. On account of that funds for supporting Indian players took a long time coming. Now, with medal hopes dwindling as the Games progress, tennis is set to be in a very strong bargaining position with the government given the spectacular run of our mixed doubles combo. From villain to its saviour, Bopanna has certainly come a long way in the murky politics of Indian tennis.
One win more and it will be impossible even for the babus in the Arjuna committee to keep belittling his achievements for one public fracas with Paes in 2012.