In her typical Northern England dialect, chair umpire Alison Hughes would bark out the words ‘Thank You’ and ‘Plees’ after almost every point. Face red because of the heat, her tone bordered on irritation. But as one would expect in a home match, it wasn’t just the cheering of an over-enthusiastic crowd that bothered her, but the jeering that was aimed at Rohan Bopanna, who did not have a great day.
Those who chose to suffer in the boiling cauldron that R K Khanna Stadium was on Saturday afternoon, expected to witness magic from the doubles pair of Leander Paes and Bopanna. Instead, there were frustrated ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as the Indian duo repeatedly hit the net or missed the baseline.
Bopanna was constantly reminded by the thousands inside the centre court that he was enduring one of the toughest days at work. Not that he needed any reminding.
It was almost as if the paying public demanded a better performance from him; reminding him they were sitting under the scorching sun to watch some quality tennis. In between sets, during changeovers and also between points, they would simply yell ‘Bopanna’, as if to wake him up.
They would eventually fall silent, but not because the chair umpire had told them to. The home side was going down without even putting up a decent fight. Paes and Bopanna were beaten by Radek Stepanek and Adam Pavlasek in straight sets (5-7, 2-6, 2-6). Going into Sunday’s reverse singles rubbers, India trail Czech Republic in the World Group playoff 1-2.
It’s a scoreline many had predicted. But instead of a singles point (that Somdev Devvarman won on Friday), India were banking on their doubles pair to do the job and ensure India stayed alive going into the final day. Doubles was perceived as a sure-shot point for India in this tie, especially after the Czech’s had a rather unknown player in Adam Pavlasek partnering the seasoned Stepanek. India were expecting the Czechs to play Lukas Rosol, who brushed aside the challenge posed by Yuki Bhambri on Friday, instead of Pavlasek. Admittedly, they got carried away when they saw Pavlasek warming-up for the tie this morning. Paes would admit they tried too hard to target and break down Pavlasek.
But the 20-year-old, who has built a reputation of winning big matches for his side, did not budge. He didn’t do anything exceptional but ensured he did the little things right. The 37-year-old Stepanek played the role of an ideal leader, talking to his partner and making sure pressure didn’t get to him.
They would target Bopanna’s back-hand, hitting hard and low. The 35-year-old was too slow to react, also perhaps affected by the high humidity. In some ways, India also scripted their own downfall. Both Paes and Bopanna’s serves were broken thrice each.
Crucially, though, there weren’t two continuous points where both played well together. If Paes, 42, would do his job of creating an opening for his partner to finish, Bopanna would either over-hit it or miss the volleys. If Bopanna would serve big and set-up a point, Paes would not be able to finish it by being unnaturally error-prone at the net. There was just no coordination between them to trouble the Czechs.
The duo was at pains to convince that not playing enough together on tour had little bearing on Saturday’s outcome. They last played together a year back, again at the Davis Cup World Group playoff, where they defeated Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac in a thrilling five-setter. Since then, both have played with different partners on tour and unless India pull off a miracle on Sunday, they are unlikely to play together before the Rio Olympics, where Paes and Bopanna will most likely be India’s doubles team.
In his 19-minute post-match press conference, Paes used the word ‘believe’ 11 times while referring to Bopanna. “We are taking this loss on the chin today. But I believe in Rohan. That’s why I wanted to play with him last Olympics. And as long as we believe in each other, we can win a medal in Rio,” Paes said.
While that may still be a year away, Paes knows unless the two ageing pros get their act together, his dream of ending his career with another Olympic medal — he has a singles bronze from 1996 — will remain just that, a dream.