Following his exit from the quarterfinals of the French Open, India’s number one men’s doubles player Rohan Bopanna sees his pairing with Sania Mirza as the only option available for the mixed doubles event at the Rio Olympics. “The only way for us to get in the cut is for Sania and me to play together. The cut-off for the combined ranking might be around 35-45. Unfortunately, there is nobody else who can make it in that, so if we go according to the rankings, then it’s the only option,” he told The Indian Express on Thursday.
Furthermore, in terms of the men’s doubles, Bopanna is awaiting the final rankings which will be published on June 6 to see if he makes it to the top 10. “If I don’t make it (to Top 10), then I will have to pair up with Leander (Paes),” said the current world number 11. “If I’m in the Top 10, then I can pick my partner,” he adds. As such, should the 36-year-old make it to the Top 10 world doubles rankings and choose to pick another partner, there is a possibility that Paes, who is currently ranked 51, may miss out on a record seventh Olympic Games.
When asked if Bopanna has started thinking about whom he’d partner up with for the men’s doubles in Rio, the right-hander replied: “Not really. It’s been just a day since I finished (at the French Open). So I haven’t given it a thought yet. I’m just waiting to see where I stand, if it’s in the top 10 or not. Then it’ll be easier for me to make that decision. It’s just a matter of a few days.”
The ongoing French Open is the last tournament before the rankings published on June 6 go into consideration for Olympic qualification. Though Bopanna and his Romanian partner Florin Mergea exited at the quarterfinal stage, the Indian’s chances of making it to the Top 10 now rest on world number nine Ivan Dodig not defending his title at Roland Garros.
As winner of the 2015 edition, the Croat is defending 2000 points. Failure to defend the crown will ensure Bopanna leapfrogs Bruno Soares and Dodig to a possible ninth spot for the first time since he fell out of the top 10 in March.
According to the qualification criteria for the quadrennial event, a player in the top 10 gets direct entry and the right to choose any player from their own country to pair up with for the men’s or women’s doubles. Players outside the top 10 will be granted qualification based on their combined world rankings if it fits within the total 24 slots available. “If Rohan is in the top 10, then he picks whoever he wants. If he isn’t, then he will have to pair up with Leander because only their doubles combined rankings will have a chance of putting out a men’s team,” states national selector and Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali. Mirza, meanwhile already qualifies for the women’s doubles.
Based on their playing styles, there are mixed feelings about the Rohan-Leander pairing nonetheless. “Rohan is a bit more aggressive than Leander at the net, but Leander makes up for that with his reaction-time and quickness. He’s a touch player, so that makes up for it. Also Rohan likes playing on the left side, and Leander on the right. So it works,” explains Ali. Given their playing styles, Bopanna’s big serve can well be complemented by Paes’ dominance on the volley.
Meanwhile, former Fed Cup coach Enrico Piperno states that he wasn’t too impressed by their teaming. “They’ve played together but they haven’t clicked. They’ve been below par,” he says.
According to Bopanna, the duo haven’t played “enough” to gauge their partnership. “Unfortunately, we haven’t really played much together. We’ve just played three-four matches. It’s tough to really tell in that much what you complement each other with as a team. We just played once in Bangalore, then Delhi. One in Uzbekistan and one in Kazakhstan. So not much team time together. And then we don’t get into any of the Masters series together because there is nobody with a higher rank for me to get in with,” he says.
The current rankings, in turn, also disable the pair from competing in tournaments together to improve their playing time. “We won’t get into any of the main tournaments. Even if I want to, the rankings are not high enough to get us into the tournament. For example, before Rio there is a tournament in Toronto where the cutoff for the main draw is about 45-50 on the combined rankings. So I won’t get into a tournament like that,” he adds of the possibility of pairing up with Paes who turns 43 in a fortnight.
Having a men’s team present at Rio will enable world number one in women’s doubles Mirza to select a partner for the mixed doubles event, which is widely considered India’s best chance for a medal. However, the event’s qualification will again be based on combined rankings. “There are only 16 mixed doubles teams. So combined ranks of players will be taken into account and only the best 16 combinations will get in,” explains SP Misra, executive member of the All India Tennis Association (AITA).
Subsequently, Bopanna’s current 11 and Mirza’s top position will provide a significant chance for sending a team as compared with Paes’ 52. “June 6 is the cutoff date. Not the better option, if you go by rankings, it’s the only option,” Bopanna mentions. Subsequently, he claims that the mixed doubles pairing will look for opportunities to play together before heading to Rio. “Mixed doubles will be the hardest event for sure. Obviously Sania and I are going to Rio, so we’ll definitely try to play before if we make it,” he says in what is by far the clearest indication about what India’s mixed pairing might look like.
Picking Bopanna means that Mirza, a predominantly deuce-court player will have a natural advantage-sided teammate as a partner. “Sania has a strong forehand, so she will like to play on the right side of court. Rohan likes the left side, so that works. Leander, in turn has played and won a Grand Slam playing on the ad-court side, but that was a long time ago. Recently he’s been playing on the right,” Ali says. “At the same time, Sania and Rohan have not played a competitive tournament together for a while. They played the IPTL (International Premier Tennis League) together, but that’s more of an exhibition and it will be about 10 months between that and the Olympics. And Sania and Leander have won Asian Games medals together,” he adds. With Bopanna, there’s Sania’s Hopman Cup final from 2007.
Depending on Dodig
Yet there still is the question on what Bopanna’s rank will be this coming Monday. Should Dodig lose out in Paris, the Bangalore-resident will make it to the top 10, and pick any partner of his choice, regardless of the rank, leaving open the possibility that Bopanna may not pick Paes.
Bopanna is most likely going to the South American nation though. And he’s looking forward to making the trip to Rio de Janeiro, where he will play in his second Olympic Games after London four years ago. “The last time I was in Brazil was in 2006 for a Challengers. But this is going to be great. People there love sport. They just had a football World Cup there, so Rio is going to be one of the best sporting cities and it’ll be lovely to play there,” Bopanna asserts.
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