There’s a narrow passageway that runs parallel to the outside courts of the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune. It is a few meters wide, designed on an elevated platform from which passers-by can have a few glances, between trees and floodlight poles, at the matches being played on the blue hard courts. On Thursday evening, that promenade served as an unintentional makeshift stand where over a hundred people jostled for space to catch the action ensuing in a doubles match. Such is the crowd-pulling ability of a Leander Paes versus Rohan Bopanna match.
The fiery rivalry that exists between the two former doubles partners is well known, and when the team of Bopanna and Divij Sharan and Paes and his Mexican partner Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela took to the court for their quarterfinal at the Tata Open Maharashtra, they produced a match filled with palpable tension, quick-paced exchanges, a few intense arguments over line calls, and a wholly gripping tennis match.
For an hour and 45 minutes, the dozens that were seated and the few rows of people that had assembled on the promenade (which included a few players, briefly including the tall Ivo Karlovic, and ATP officials) remained hooked, as Bopanna eventually lobbed home a scrappy match point to win the tie 6-7, 6-4, 17-15.
This was the fourth time Bopanna has played Paes in a doubles match since 2015, and won all four. “I’ve not played this close a match,” Bopanna said after the tie.
This was the third tour match that Bopanna played with his new partner Sharan, with whom he had paired to win the gold medal at the Asian Games in August. But in Paes alone, they met their most dangerous opponent.
At 45, the veteran and winner of 18 Grand Slam titles (eight men’s doubles and 10 mixed doubles), was in inspired form. Never has he possessed a big serve, but on the night he was finding the angles well – including an ace down the ‘T’ in the super tiebreak. In recent years, his quick-reflexes at the net had started to desert him. But on Thursday, he put up a performance reminiscent of his stellar yesteryears, where the lightning quick reflexes made him a near-impenetrable force up front. “I’m feeling much faster and stronger because I’ve worked very hard during the off-season to get fit,” Paes says. “I won’t be surprised if I do well in this season.”
Bopanna and Sharan struggled to get past their senior compatriot, who struck home winners down the line or out wide from the net. He even found rhythm in his returns, hitting winners on multiple occasions, particularly on Sharan’s serve. Arguably, Paes was the most solid player on court. He and Reyes-Varela even had six match point opportunities. But it was the partnership of Sharan and Bopanna that proved to be the deciding factor. Bopanna’s big serve was lethal and flawless, and bailed the pair out time and again in the super tie break (striking three aces). Sharan took some time to get used to the changing conditions once the cold Pune evening set in. There were signs of scrappiness, but as a team they were strong enough to pull through.
“This is the first event for us together on the tour, and it’ll take a few months to see what each other’s strengths are,” Bopanna says. “He’s very strong on his volleys and his defence. We need to work on our own strengths and if we do that we’ll be a much better team in a few months.”
That scrappiness — which included a stray Sharan serve that caught his partner’s head — but ability to get through was best symbolised on their second match point.
Paes’ return caught the net cord and went over, Sharan, standing at the net, got his racquet which again struck the net and went over. Reyes-Varela got to it with a reflex half-volley and sent a drop shot back across court. Bopanna, then placed deep in the court, strode forward and hit a backhand lob for a winner. “It was instinctive,” says Bopanna. “As a doubles player you always need to come up to the net and it just so happened that I was on my way up anyway. That’s why I managed to get to the ball and it just seemed like the right thing (lob) to play.”
It took a while for the players to make their way through the crowd after the match ended. The route back to the locker-room is usually a minute’s walk. Today, given the setting, the players and the gripping display of tennis, it would have taken them quite a while to wade through the crowded passageway. “This was,” Paes, a record-six time champion of an India-hosted ATP, concludes, “one of the best matches I’ve ever played at the Indian ATP.
Important that best team is chosen for Davis Cup: Paes
Pune: A few minutes after losing to Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan, Leander Paes was cheeky in his reaction to missing out to the two for a place in India’s upcoming Davis Cup world group qualifier against Italy, on the grass courts of Kolkata. “Sure, Calcutta, grass, not too bad on grass am I. It’d be fun to play if I’m called,” he said on Thursday. “I think it’s important that the best team is chosen and I wish the team good luck. I think the results show for themselves and at the end of the day, there’s no secret about what’s going on in Davis Cup.”
On Monday, the AITA selection committee announced a six-man squad for the tie, with India’s top two ranked doubles players Bopanna (37) and Sharan picked ahead of Leander Paes (63), who was born and grew up in Kolkata and is an expert grass court player, for the sole doubles rubber.
This will be the second consecutive tie that the 45-year-old has not been named for after he broke the world record for most doubles rubber wins, 43, in the Davis Cup. —ENS