Cast your emotion aside as we sit down to take stock of the challenge that India’s tennis selectors will face in the next few days. They will have to decide on the men’s doubles team that will represent India at the Olympic Games in London. And they have three wonderful achievers in Leander Paes, Rohan Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupathi to choose from.
With only Leander Paes finding a place in the top 10 of the ATP doubles rankings now, dreams of two Indian pairs figuring in the draw have receded. But each of the three possible pairings is medal material and has the potential to be excitingly competent while delivering India that the Olympic men’s doubles medal that eluded Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in four starts.
We must remember that the draw will play a big role in how long our London dreams last. Back in 2008, the Indian pair of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi came up against an inspired Stanislas Wawrinka and Roger Federer, who raised his game after a devastating quarterfinal exit in singles. Hopefully, whichever pair gets picked will have the motivation to do well and will have a great run, irrespective of who it faces on the way.
This time around, the United States of America’s Bryan brothers – Bob and Mike – will be among the pairs that the others will want to avoid as long as possible. The Polish Power, as Mariusz Fyrstenburg and Marcin Matkowski are called, is another pair that can be dangerous. Besides, the likes of Belarussian Max Mirnyi and Canada’s Daniel Nestor can pose big questions, no matter who they pair up with.
So which two players should be picked for the task? My own vote goes to the experienced pair of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, no matter what noises either player makes in the run up to the Games. Before you remind me that there must be no room for sentiment when picking teams, let me offer my reasons for this selection.
First and foremost, Leander Paes picks himself by virtue of his ranking and form this year. He has a 20-7 record in doubles play, including three title victories. Mahesh Bhupathi has the second best win-loss record (18-10) while Rohan Bopanna has tasted victory 17 times in 28 matches. Leander’s careful schedule may actually have given him the chance to cause the Indian Tricolour go up at the Olympic Games one more time after his bronze medal feat at Atlanta in 1996.
The Mahesh Bhupathi-Rohan Bopanna pair has not exactly set the Thames on fire this season, even though it is ranked seventh in the ATP rankings. It won the Dubai Open and has four semifinal appearances to show for its efforts. Their campaigns in the big-ticket events – the Australian Open and French Open – have not lasted beyond three rounds.
The chances of Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna combining at the Olympic Games seem the remotest as they lost the only match they played together this year. There is so little time for them to train together and play as a seasoned combination if they step on the grass courts of Wimbledon during the Games. The only reason this pairing can be chosen is if the selectors pick that the French Open mixed doubles combination of Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza to try and win a medal in that competition and spare the 38-year-old the challenge of playing two events.
The experience of playing on the big stage – and don’t forget that playing in Wimbledon can be a challenge on its own – will come in handy for Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. Between them they have got Grand Slam titles and Olympic Games semifinal appearances and use their combined tactical acumen to surprise some established pairs. My mind goes back to the start of 2011 when they returned to play as a team and won the Chennai Open and made it to the final of the Australian Open. And, I can see a similar situation now.
Of course, it does not help that India’s two most experienced players had another bitter parting at the end of 2011. The grapevine has it that Leander Paes approached Rohan Bopanna to pair up with him through all of 2012 but the latter chose to partner Mahesh Bhupathi instead. There is a marked reluctance by Mahesh Bhupathi to accept the idea of teaming up with Leander Paes.
As recently as in April this year, he was quoted as saying the logical thing would be for him to play with Rohan Bopanna instead of pairing up with Leander Paes just for the Olympic Games. He also pointed out that a few weeks practice would not help the partnership beat a strong field at the Olympic Games, suggesting that it would be a miracle.
Clearly, it is imperative for the mandarins of All India Tennis Association and even the Indian Olympic Association to sit down and chat with both players. No, there is no need to read a riot act to mature men. Nor is there a need to remind them both that they are playing for India and not just their personal glory. They will only have to appeal to the players’ consciences.
I believe that despite their differences – and perhaps precious little communication in the past few months – Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have it in them to come together and give all of us wonderful memories from the London Games. Hopefully, the pair will last the distance and emerge unscathed on August 4 – and let us uncork the emotion that we have bottled up.
This piece first appeared in DNA, June 9, 2012