Carrying calmness and consistency, 43-year-old Bopanna re-enters top 10
In the company of Australian Matthew Ebden, Bopanna has jumped 10 spots from the start of the season
Rohan Bopanna, the coffee-brewing connoisseur, likens playing professional tennis to “starting your own company”. You’ve got to invest capital after capital after capital, he says, without knowing how long it would take — if at all — for the rewards to come along.
At age 43, two decades into turning pro, Bopanna continues to extract greater returns on investment.
Also Read | French Open offers players tool to filter out online abuseOn Monday, Bopanna rose to world No. 9 in the ATP doubles rankings, re-entering the top 10 for the first time since 2016. In those intervening seven years, amazingly, the world No. 3 from 10 years ago has never dropped out of the top 50.
“The biggest key in tennis is to be able to sustain. A lot of the guys come up the rankings and drop," Bopanna said over phone. “If you look at my transition from when I've got into the top 50, I've been able to maintain that level and sustain it for long. Coming from India, only a handful of us have been able to do that.
“Of course, it's fantastic to be in the top 10 once again. And that shows I’ve still got it in me to play at that high level and compete for titles—not just in 250 events but also the Masters and big events.”
In the company of Australian Matthew Ebden, Bopanna has jumped 10 spots from the start of the season on the back of titles at the ATP 250 Qatar Open, Indian Wells Masters and a positive clay swing (final at Madrid Masters, a semi-final in Barcelona) leading into the French Open starting on Sunday.
The 2017 Roland Garros mixed doubles champion has won five titles in the last 18 months, as many as he did from 2017 to 2020. The second wind in Bopanna’s career has not only intensified with his often-creative attention and attitude to fitness (practicing Iyengar Yoga, for instance), but also the ability to keep his tennis in sync and improving with the modern-day doubles game involving no-ad scoring, match tiebreakers and multiple singles specialists.
For example, check out Bopanna’s lengthy baseline exchange with 24-year-old Denis Shapovalov that earned the pair match points in the Indian Wells quarter-finals. Or his age-defying get and pass on the run in the Barcelona quarters.
“The consistency," Bopanna said when asked about the standout difference in his game from a decade ago. “That is where the experience also comes in. No matter the situation of the point or the match, I don't feel rushed. Also, mentally, I'm that much stronger now. Physically maybe not on some days, but my mental strength is what really sets me apart. Yoga has played a big role. That calmness on the court has made a humungous change.”
What hasn’t changed, though, is the big booming Bopanna serve. He still takes pride in going the entire 2022 French Open without dropping serve, and keeping “the only shot in tennis that we can fully control” firing away all these years.
“That has been a big weapon, and every time I'm able to adapt and bring more strength to it. I always practice it, although the focus now is more on quality than quantity. But I keep targets in training and practice it constantly till I'm confident," he said. “No matter how good a returner he is, if I hit my spot on my serve, I feel I have a better shot at winning that point.”
That’s also the case with Bopanna at the net, finishing off points with his deft touches and swift reflexes. They are bound to slow down with age, Bopanna said, “but doing those drills constantly helps”.
"That's where having a fixed partner also makes a big difference. With Shapovalov (the singles No. 27 who was Bopanna's former partner), the doubles practice never used to happen so much, even though we enjoyed playing with each other. Now, Matt and I are able to practice together a lot more and at a high level. We, therefore, understand our games and strengths better," Bopanna said.
Ebden, 35, and Bopanna paired up at the start of the season and hit their stride after the Australian Open. In playing alongside a strong returner, the solid-serving Indian and Aussie have “big combinations” to work with.
“Me serving, him at the net; me putting my 6’3’’ frame at the top of the net every time Matt puts a good return down on somebody's feet—it puts a lot of pressure. If we're holding serve comfortably and I'm returning well too, we become an extremely dangerous team.”
That team has had a consistent string of deep tournament runs this season in an increasingly inconsistent world of doubles tennis.
“That’s where the sustainability challenge gets even more difficult,” Bopanna said. “Even with the singles ranking you can get into tournaments now, so the cuts are strong every week. You have to be (ranked) above 35-40 to even get into a 500 or 1000 (ATP event).”
Bopanna, the world No. 9, doesn’t have to worry about that for now.