Rio 2016 tennis preview: Rohan Bopanna-Sania Mirza India’s biggest medal hope

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Rohan Bopanna-Sania Mirza

On 5 August, the grandest sporting spectacle in the world will kick-off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Every participating athlete knows that an Olympic medal will be the ultimate jewel in the crown in his/her sporting career. The Olympics are when reputations are enhanced or shattered. The Olympics is also where lifetime friendships are forged in spite of the cutting-edge rivalry and tension on the field. Having been part of the Beijing Olympics, I have seen, first-hand, the amazing camaraderie between athletes of different culture, backgrounds, and races.

Athletics, swimming, and gymnastics are the key events in any Olympics, and by and large, also the most viewed. However, that does not take away the sheen from other individual sports like racquet sports, wrestling, and boxing. Every top athlete worth his/her salt will give it his all for the feel of that medal around his/her neck at the end of the games.

India has had limited success in tennis and apart from the bronze medal that Leander Paes won at the Atlanta Olympics, we have very little to boast about. Yes, we have come very close on two other occasions — once when Ramesh Krishnan and Leander played together (reaching 1992 Barcelona Olympics quarters); and once again when Mahesh Bhupati and Leander played together at 2004 Athens Olympics, where they lost the bronze medal match. But somewhere down the line, the medal eluded us.

sania-BOPANNAI also felt that a golden opportunity was missed in 2012 London Olympics due to petty squabbles. I can understand that all parties at that point in time had their own point of view but when you are playing for the country’s pride, then personal egos and friendships need to be put aside and the best individual or team should be on the field. However, this is in the past and we now need to look forward to the action in Rio.

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So where do we stand?

India has fielded three entries — Leander PaesRohan Bopanna in the mixed doubles, Sania Mirza-Prarthana Thombare in the women’s doubles, and Rohan-Sania in the mixed doubles.

Before I start about their chances, let me first start by congratulating and saluting Leander on participating in a record 7th Olympic Games. Wow! 28 years of representing India and churning out performances in Davis Cup, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, and the Olympics like his life depended on them. Leander is a true soldier, a warrior who plays well above his own ability when the Indian tricolor unfurls where he is performing.

Back to reality. In Rio, Rohan and Leander have their work cut out. In theory, theirs is a perfect pair. While Rohan has a monster serve, Leander has the quick hands to dominate at the net. While Rohan has blunt, hammer-like returns and groundstrokes, Leander has incredibly deft returns with pinpoint accuracy to bludgeon the power of their opponents’ serves. Add to this, the years of experience of handling tough situations and opponents, one would tend to think that this pair is a sure-shot medal-winning team.

It’s amazing that after being at the top of the sport for the past 20 years, Leander is still considered a match winner on his day. Nonetheless, he is human and he is 42. In a sport where physicality is of prime importance (especially in men’s tennis), he may find himself struggling especially on his serve. One can expect the tennis courts in Rio to be slow and this is going to further hamper him.

Secondly, Rohan when on song, is a world-beater and yet there have been far too many days of mediocrity this season. Add to this their personal chemistry, or lack thereof — which was evident when the selectors met to choose the pairings — and suddenly things don’t look too hunky dory. However, let’s not forget that the two of them came together for Davis Cup earlier in July and seemed to have put away their personal issues. This was indeed heartening and augurs well for them in Rio. For both of them, it may be a last shot at an Olympic medal. Going out with all guns blazing and finishing with a medal around their necks would be the best answer to their detractors.

Now coming to women’s doubles, stepping up on the victory podium is going to take a miracle. I am a huge fan of Sania but it’s going to take an exceptional performance from her to pull out the proverbial rabbit from the hat in this event. Doubles is all about two partners, who are more or less equal in their playing ability. Unfortunately, while Sania is at the pinnacle of the rankings, her partner Prarthana Thombare is just under the top 200, currently at 192. In all fairness to Prarthana, she is the second best doubles player in the country today and also has a very good rapport with Sania. This will certainly help.

To expect the two of them to beat teams where both partners are probably going to have a combined ranking inside 50, is going to take some doing. Honestly speaking, I wouldn’t like to be in Prarthana’s shoes right now because she is going to feel the heat. Having said that, let me also add that these are the exact situations which enable athletes to raise their game and perform well above their ability. For Prarthana and millions of tennis followers in this country, I hope this prophecy comes true and we come home with a medal here too.

Now let’s talk of the one event where we Indians seem to be taking all the grand slam titles — the mixed doubles. I think Rohan and Sania would have to be considered a dream team. They have perfect game styles to match each other’s abilities, they have great personal chemistry on the court and most importantly, they have won practically every time they have stepped on to a court to play. This is certainly a team I am looking forward to watching and I hope they can create magic in Rio.

A lot is at stake here — personal milestones, personal pride in performance, and for three of the four players, possibly the last chance to win a medal at the Olympics. A medal at Rio would also give a great fillip to the game in India, where we are today on the threshold of producing some very solid tennis players, both male and female. A medal can only inspire the gen-next into pushing themselves harder to emulate these great icons who are in Rio.

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