It was a trick shot – a drop that fell across the net and defying momentum tottered back towards the court-divider, just one from among Leander Paes’ glorious bag of tricks. You could cling onto that lingering wizardry for long after it played out. It helped him level games at 1-1 in the mid set after he’d lost the opener of the French Open mixed doubles final with Martina Hingis. Across the net was Sania Mirza. But importantly, across the net was also Ivan Dodig, a Bosnia-born Croat who earlier in the day had lost the men’s doubles semifinal – a loss that would’ve hurt Paes more than his win here would have made him happy.
Rohan Bopanna was nowhere on the court, but his words would have reverberated in the chilled air at the Philippe-Chatrier. The 36-year-old had told the Indian Express a day earlier that it will be his decision on whom he will partner in the men’s doubles at the Rio Olympics should he make the top 10. “If I don’t make it (to the top 10), then I’ll have to pair up with Leander (Paes). But if I’m in the top 10, then I can pick my partner.”
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To be sure, Paes completed a career Grand Slam – and helped Hingis along the way to one too – taking his mixed tally to 10 of those titles. But it was Dodig’s loss earlier in the day that fatefully scrambled the all-important rankings and pushed Bopanna into the top 10. This last-gasp entry into the bracket gives Bopanna the right to choose his men’s doubles partner at Rio. And should he opt to not pick Paes, who languishes around No. 50, this furious Friday could spell the end of his dream to go to a record seventh Olympics to Rio.
It’s ironical that it should happen on a day when Paes played a gutsy, intense final to complete his Slam set in mixed doubles – the very category that is the bone of contention, given the higher chances at winning a medal at the Games. But should Bopanna pick a partner other than Paes, the spry old man will not be eligible to travel to Rio, let alone be on-site to take a shot at the mixed doubles.
That Sania was responding with her crisp, curt angled strokes means that two of India’s finest doubles players were on show this finals Friday, but the pairing that might make the cut – Sania gets to choose – might include the tall Bopanna, who exited Roland Garros earlier.
The star-cast on this wintery summer day in Paris was interesting, and hardly frigid. Dodig, the quick-footed Croat was on the court alongside Sania. Hingis – Mirza’s regular partner, one half of the now famous Santina – was opposite her, and building a case for Leander with their classy rapport. Mirza-Dodig had looked like ending this badly for Paes – if a Slam final can be called bad indeed – by winning over 95 percent on their first serve in the opening set. But Paes would turn on his aggressive bulldozing by charging the net and Hingis was as steady as ever.
Midway through the second, after Paes-Hingis had won an early break both pairings traded breaks, but the 42-year-old was a possessed soul not letting go thereafter.
French Open titles just prior to the Olympics tend to be royally ignored in India though. Four years ago, Mirza had won on clay at Paris with Mahesh Bhupathi, but was compelled to play with Paes at London Games two months later.
India’s tennis doubles royalty is known for its torrid past and inter-personal relations, and Paes’ top glory in the mixed event might still not be enough for him to push his case for Rio.
In a strange twist of fate, and with Mirza watching from the other end, the winner this time too – despite his persistent claims at his mixed record to be considered – might well end up not heading to Rio. But his fate had left his hands – those famous magical hands – soon after defending champions Dodig and Marcelo Melo lost their semifinals, assuring Bopanna of his right to decide on Paes’s future.
The rankings taken into consideration will be the ones published on June 6, a day after the finals at Roland Garros. Losing out to the pair of Marc Lopez and Feliciano Lopez 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 means that Bopanna will leapfrog past Dodig and 10th placed Brazilian Bruno Soares to move into the top 10 for the first time since March. The result ensures the Indian, on 4980 ranking points will cover the 575 points he currently trails Dodig by.
Other than Paes, Bopanna’s options range from Purav Raja (ranked 102), Saketh Myneni (128), and India’s top singles player Yuki Bhambri, who is ranked 141 in singles.
Dramatic days are expected to follow in Indian tennis, though Bopanna – who has not gone past the quarters in mixed doubles in any Slam – could do the smart thing of erasing the past from his memory and head to Rio in the company of Paes, and give himself the best chance to win a medal. Not every Friday final should be forgotten, if the returns (0 medals in tennis) from London are remembered.