It would end in tears for Sania Mirza. “I don’t think I’ll be around in the next four years. Don’t know what to say,” she would manage. Her partner Rohan Bopanna too was crestfallen.
Indian tennis has submerged into such deep ugliness – with backroom sniping – that some wonderful careers, some delectable games stand to be overshadowed forever.
Now it’s four of India’s greatest doubles players – Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes, Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna – who have gone down in a bronze play-off of Olympics from Athens to Rio, and no one’s any better than the other. When all’s said and done, India’s best place is 4th.
The Czech Republic pair of Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek ended the Indian dream as they won with a scoreline of 1-6 5-7.
The shock was harder to take since a day before – Saturday – it seemed like party in Rio for Indians. It wouldn’t have lasted more than 20 minutes – Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza were running golden rings around Venus Williams.
In one fell swoop a cloud of the unreal had descended on Court 1 of the Olympic Park tennis centre. The first smug conclusion was Indo-American Rajeev Ram could be soundly beaten by the two Indo-Indians Mirza-Bopanna. Next, Venus Williams was easy pickings, never mind those Grand Slams and tangos in doubles with Serena Wiliams. The Indian pairing had her cornered – Bopanna’s fluid backhands with that cover drive fluency whistling past her.
The early trade of breaks had accounted for a Grand Slam winner’s serve.
It didn’t matter that Sania’s serve – patched together to respectability after all these years on the circuit – was crumbling, she had enough of firepower on her returns that had gotten better with each successive scalp – Australia to Great Britain.
Against Team GB, Heather Watson had obviously been the marked target, but Indians hadn’t shied away from going after a tired Andy Murray’s weakness on the backhand (he’s played singles a few hours before), even as they found themselves in the semifinals.
It was a formula Sania had settled into – with Bhupathi, and later the big-serving Bopanna. Things were going to plan – India’s fractious tennis squad looked to be on the path of bringing back a medal vindicating their many bold choices over the years.
The high point – it needs mentioning because this has been an Olympics of several low ones – was Bopanna getting some stunning returns and then cutting off angles from net volleys and smashes, even a few wild shots that spread peals of happy laughter. In one such she almost dug a flagpost with her racquet and achieved a cracking angle that kissed over the net and left the Americans stranded out of the frame.
Sania was laughing – not all Olympics need be about nerve wracking struggle. Sport was meant to be gleeful, celebrate free spirits – like Sania’s – topline careers, and point the medal in the direction of carefree shotmakers.
Even net chords were going India’s way.
A final was imminent, a gold possible. Suddenly from 0 medals in one week, a gold was on the horizon like the glorious solar disc that lights up Leblon and Copacabana at sunset. Bopanna – the eternal trier, was threatening to come off age, shirk off the Lee-Hesh shadow, salvage an Olympics for India even. And Sania – Indian sport’s boldest statement – would be the leader of the pairing.
You know how delusions end?
Venus Williams awoke from her reverie. The multiple Majors winner had had enough of the Indians making a mockery of a well-oiled system which didn’t mourn when the Bryans opted out of Rio. Rajeev Ram had always been steady, and now the strike back began, and the momentum turned in such quick fashion that Bopanna-Mirza will struggle to recover from this – unless they hoard a few Grand Slams quickly.
They would go down to the Americans in super tie-break, a woeful 10-3 scoreline, pushing them into the bronze bracket. But that was not to be.