It was impossible to miss snatches of his US Open doubles final run earlier this month, or more recently, his last Davis Cup tie against Morocco. For a social media fiend, the video showing the pilot and passengers according him a warm welcome onboard an IndiGo flight for winning that tie is doing the rounds.
Rohan Bopanna is seemingly everywhere these days. This would have been inconceivable two decades ago when he turned professional in 2003. He did take his time to reach the summit, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century philosopher, put it: “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”
All of this is reminiscent of the time when Rohan won his first Major, the French Open mixed doubles, with Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski in 2017. Or say, the 2010 US Open doubles final heartbreak alongside Pakistan’s Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi. Nicknamed the Indo-Pak Express, the duo didn’t drop a set in their astonishing run to the final.
A demure figure, Bopanna didn’t shy away from a challenge back then. At 43, the story is much the same for the man who is missing cartilage in both his knees.
Forty is a time when most sportspersons usually become a thing of the past, but Bopanna has been busy tossing up records with the word ‘oldest’ as his middle name. He’s the oldest tennis player to claim an ATP Masters 1000 title (Indian Wells in March); the oldest man to play a Grand Slam final in the Open era; the oldest player to breach the top 10 of the ATP doubles rankings. All of it cascading on him in a span of seven months.
The veteran might not be in the same league as Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi or Sania Mirza, but he is considered by many as the game’s torchbearer in the country following the retirement of his peers.
Paes has eight doubles and 10 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles and is only the second Indian tennis player to win a medal at the Olympics, Bhupathi won three doubles and four mixed doubles Grand Slams, while Sania has six Slams — three each in doubles and mixed doubles — and was a trailblazer in the way she hit gendered stereotypes out of the court.
In Bopanna’s case, a single Grand Slam title and five Masters 1000 titles seem well short of milestones set by the former Indian greats. However, in the sporting world, numbers don’t always reflect the greatness of an individual.
There’s no doubt the ‘big three’ have left their mark on the professional sport, but somewhere in between, Bopanna’s rise could never really jut out.
To put things into perspective, the galvanic Davis Cup five-setter against Netherlands’ Martin Verkerk in a World Group playoff during his early 20s was an attention-grabber at the time. Unfortunately, it was offset by Paes, who was running hot on the mixed doubles circuit the same year, first winning the Australian Open and then Wimbledon.
Two decades on, Bopanna reached the mixed doubles final at the Australian Open with Saina. But, it was Saina who garnered the lion’s share of the accolades, for she was playing her last Grand Slam.
These are constant reminders of how Bopanna never enjoyed the same level of topicality as them for a major chunk of his career, but it is his plateauing at the top level of the sport that sets him apart.
Ageing and beset by injuries, most would gradually fizzle out. Bopanna, however, has reeled in most of his success upon crossing the age of 35.
Yes, there was a time he was laid low when he lost cartilages in both his knees around the Covid-hit times. Yet, he picked up the racquet and was at it again after undergoing a rebuilding phase with the help of Iyengar yoga. He’s built his own legacy and the grand send-off in Lucknow during the Davis Cup recently was something he duly deserves.
He never possessed the elasticity and genius of Paes, but his gigantic frame of 6’4” makes for a cracking server. The exceptional down-the-line winners, as witnessed during this year’s US Open, have only refined with age, like him. And with the final send-off of his career chugging closer, as only his beard suggests, it could get grander with Bopanna set to feature at the Asian Games.
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