Rohan Bopanna talks a bit like he plays. He just lets loose. While on court, the characteristic has stood him in good stead, making him the hottest Indian men’s doubles player this year. It hasn’t really done him any favour as far as public perception goes.
Bopanna’s choice of the unfancied Saketh Myneni over Leander Paes as a partner for Rio made many wonder if he was part of an elaborate conspiracy to deny India’s most accomplished doubles proponent his seventh Olympics. That he didn’t really think much of Paes as a player. Throw the question at him and his response is surprising. “He (Paes) is one of the best tennis players we have for India. What he has accomplished in his career so far, nobody can take away from that. I have watched him play Davis Cup numerous times. I have been part of the team since 2002 and I think he is the best Indian tennis player we have out there.”
That was a bit of whopper. Given that one presumed he did not have much respect for Paes’ ability. “Nobody is questioning how good a tennis player he is. It would be stupid if someone was to question that. After he has done so much for the country… When I picked Saketh over Leander, it was on the basis of my previous partnerships. I have had guys who played the game with a big serve or a big weapon. That’s what has suited my style. Hence I picked Saketh who has a similar style of playing.” That then is what Bopanna thinks. It’s up to you to believe it or not.
He is quite enthusiastic about his pairing with Sania Mirza for Rio. “I have played with her, I know her style and again she is a partner who hits big. That’s the same concept. She hits a big forehand off the ground and partners like that help bring out my best.”
So the Paes brush-off wasn’t a personality or an ego clash? “Absolutely not. There is nothing like that.” And those conspiracy theories? “It’s going to look that way but it was nothing to do with any personal clash or anything… his achievements speak for themselves and I am not even questioning that. By picking my own partners I have reached to the top-10 stage so that alone was the reason.”
Done’s done but does he see them coming together well for the Games? “We just have to find a way. We have four, five days before Rio. We have to go there and practice.”
He goes on to dismiss the national federation’s theory that Davis Cup practice aids the effort. “It’s not the question of playing Davis Cup together because it’s really different. It’s not like today you play one match and it’s going to help you for Rio.” But that’s all the match experience that the two are going to get before the Olympics. “Unfortunately, we can’t play any tournaments as we don’t get in together as a team also (Paes ranking has dipped to 59 while Bopanna is 14).”
Despite their lack of playing together, it’s still not possible to dismiss their chances at the Olympics. “If we play our best tennis we definitely have a great shot. We do need some luck in the draw as well. One or two matches always help a team get into the groove. First match is never easy no matter how much you practice. When you go out on match court the energy should be together… we need to find that in those five days before the Games. We have to find a way to really fix our game styles together.”
Your correspondent has always figured Bopanna to be an upfront guy who says it the way he sees it. In this latest episode, however, he did come across as a villain in the public eye. “That’s unfortunate. It’s just that I am picking a partner for myself and it looks like I am denying Leander his seventh Olympics. So obviously I look like the villain.”
Prod him on what he thinks about Paes still winning titles at the age of 43 and the respect shines through. “It’s fabulous. There is no doubt what he has done in mixed doubles events in these past few years… it’s been great. Hats off to him that he has been able to do this week in week out over so many years. Again, there he has a great partner with whom he combines really well. That’s the chemistry that it boils down.”
While Paes has been the face of this Davis Cup squad for long, playing for the country means a whole lot to Bopanna as well. “For me playing for India is absolutely the biggest thing. I remember all that my dad ever wanted me to do was to play for India. So in 2002 when I came into the team, he was the proudest father there. For me representing India always comes first.”
There, then. Bopanna was just saying it the way he saw it. He has immense respect for Paes and now it’s up to the bigger player to reach out and soothe things between the two. Then, India may dare fantasise about a men’s doubles medal.