Has India lost out on an Olympic medal because of Mirza, Bopanna and Paes' stubbornness?

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Has India lost out on an Olympic medal because of Mirza, Bopanna and Paes' stubbornness?

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Arun S Kaimal

07/06/2016

The greatest sporting event in the world – the Olympics – is less than a month away with all athletes engaged in last-minute preparations to secure a medal. Far away from Rio, in London, the greatest event in the tennis calendar is underway, but Rio-bound Indian players in men’s doubles – Rohan Bopanna and Leander Peas - and mixed doubles – Bopanna and Sania Mirza, who chose not to team up, will no longer be part of the tournament after suffering early exits. With less than a month remaining for the quadrennial event, a valid question in every Indian fan’s mind would be about why Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna did not partner each other at the Wimbledon? The same with Leander Paes and Bopanna. But the bigger question is and whether their stubbornness will cause India a medal at Rio?

The tennis team for Rio Olympics was decided last month after a dramatic selection process. Even though Saketh Myneni was Bopanna’s preferred choice, the All India Tennis Association went with six-time Olympian Leander Paes in the men’s doubles event. In the mixed doubles, Sania Mirza and Bopanna were selected to represent the country at Rio, but they chose not to partner each other at the Wimbledon.

World No.1 women’s doubles player Sania Mirza chose to team up with Croatian Ivan Dodig at the All England Club and was seeded No.1 in the mixed doubles event. The pair, who got a first-round bye, crashed out in the second round yesterday to an unseeded British pair of Neal Skupski and Anna Smith. On the other hand, Bopanna continued with his Russian-born Australian partner Anastasia Rodionova and made it to the third round before suffering a similar fate as his partner in Rio Olympics. Their early exits are sure to ring alarm bells about the preparation for the Olympics in mixed doubles, which is India’s best bet for a medal in tennis.

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The last time Bopanna and Mirza played together was during the International Premier Tennis League in December last year. In the ten sets that they played together in the tournament, the pair won seven to help their team Indian Aces reach the final. But, at the international level, they last teamed with each other way back in 2011 in the Wimbledon, where they reached the quarter-finals. Although Mirza and Bopanna are confident about the partnership, the lack of playing time together will be a big disadvantage for India come the Olympics.

The success of the 2012 Olympics Gold medal winners is enough to understand the importance of playing together. Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi of Belarus partnered each other at the 2012 Wimbledon to prepare for the Olympics, before winning the Gold at the quadrennial event. The duo were also the ones that knocked out Paes and Mirza in the quarter-finals in the 2012 Olympics.

Talks about Mirza and Bopanna partnering each other started last year and it would have been better for India had the duo partnered each other at least from the start of the year. Although Mirza enjoyed relative success with Dodig in the Australian Open and the French Open with a semi-final and final appearance respectively, Bopanna had three different partners in all three Grand Slams this year and made just one quarter-final appearance.

Ideally, Bopanna and Leander should start playing a few tournaments together now."

former Davis Cup captain Nandan Bal

But, in the pair’s defence, tennis competitions at the Rio Olympics would be played on a hardcourt surface and their performance in the grass courts at Wimbledon would not have made much difference at the end of the day. However, the pair could have improved their coordination on the court by playing with each other, especially when you consider Bopanna’s constant change of partners.

Also, read: Has India's success in Doubles tennis destroyed its Singles hopes?

The story in men’s doubles is no different. Leander Paes and Bopanna also exited the tournament in the second and third round respectively at the Wimbledon. When Bopanna continued with his long-term partner Florin Mergea of Romania, Paes moved from Jeremy Chardy to Martin Matkowski to find a successful partnership.

To add to it, both Bopanna and Paes did not have great seasons this year in men’s doubles. While Paes exited early in every tournament, Bopanna fared much better with two final appearances in the Sydney International and Mutua Madrid Open. But, their performances in the Grand Slams have been below average.

In hindsight, if Bopanna and Paes had put aside their personal differences earlier, then they could have played a few tournaments together to prepare for the Olympics. After all, the duo have only partnered each other six times in their career, of which the last came in the Davis Cup in September 2015.

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"Ideally, Bopanna and Leander should start playing a few tournaments together now," former Davis Cup captain Nandan Bal had told Rediff.com back in April.

Also, read: Leander Paes - Rohan Bopanna | A disaster in the making?

And to find an example for preparing for the Olympics, the Bangalorean just needed to look at his partner. Mergea took a break from his partnership with Bopanna and teamed up with fellow Romanian Horia Tecau for the Barcelona Open and the Stuttgart Open to prepare for the Olympics.

Even former World No.1 Roger Federer took time out to partner fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka before the 2008 Olympics. They played together at the Toronto Masters before going to claim the Gold at Beijing. The Williams Sisters, who won the Gold at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, played together in the Rome Masters, French Open and the Wimbledon in preparation for the Rio Olympics.

The opportunity was there, but none of the Indian pairs chose to take it. How it will affect them at the Olympics is anybody’s guess but, one thing is for sure, it would not have done any harm to their chances, had they teamed up at the Wimbledon. With tennis stalwarts from Roger Federer to Serena Williams expected to be part of the doubles competitions at the Olympics, the question about the lack of preparation is sure to come up, if the Indian players fail to produce a good display. 

Also, read: The legend of Leander Paes - 5 unique records of the Olympian

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