Rohan Bopanna felt lost as he travelled through the streets of Pune. It was just a month back, when the 37-year-old paid a one-day visit to the city during the ATP Challenger in November. Everything had changed since he last took a trip to Pune, and he needed his driver to play tour guide as they made their way back to the hotel.
“The first hour of driving, I had no clue where we were,” he says. “When we reached the hotel, the driver told me we were near Symbiosis College and the Deccan Gymkhana, and that’s when it registered to me where I was. Pune has grown so much.”
Bopanna knew that locality well, for he had spent five years there while training to become a professional. The last time he played a competitive match in Pune though, was a Futures event in 2001. Next week, he will return to Pune, as India’s fourth Grand Slam champion, to play at the ATP 250 event – Tata Open Maharashtra.
Yet he remembers his first sojourn to the city in 1994 quite well, back when he was a wide-eyed teen of 14. “It was initially exciting because I was going to be independent,” he says. “I was away from my parents, so it felt like I had a lot of freedom.”
But he’d never have much time to cash in on that freedom as tennis took up most of his time and energy. His day would start at 5:00 a.m, followed by a strict fitness sessions 45 minutes later. He’d travel from his hostel to the Deccan Gymkhana on the bicycle his father had bought him – the only mode of transport.
“In a day I’d cover roughly 14 km. But back then, when you’re waking up at 5, you don’t see cycling as part of the fitness training. You’re just trying to get there on time to do the normal training,” he says. “It was still easy to go everywhere because there was not much traffic.”
The decision to move to Pune came since the city offered quality players to train with – cousins Nitin and Sandeep Kirtane (Bopanna even lived with the latter for a while), and Gaurav Natekar topped the list. There was even the likes of Davis Cuppers Narendra Nath and Nandan Bal, and veteran coach T Balachandran serving as coaches.
“I was there to get the opportunity to play with better players and coaches. So that was a big advantage,” he explains.
And he might have settled seamlessly, had it not been for the food factor. “I came from Coorg where I was used to eating non-vegetarian food a lot, but where I stayed in Maharashtra, that was not the case,” he recalls. “The only complaint I had to my parents was I wasn’t getting enough chicken or fish. Staying away from home wasn’t the problem, it was just the food.”
That too, however, changed, but it took him a few years for it. “The warden in the hostel I was staying in didn’t see the need for non-vegetarian food, but it took me about two years to convince him,” Bopanna says. “He finally realised it was necessary for me to have it, and he started eating it with me too.”
Then there was a bit of a problem with a language barrier. As he puts it, “I couldn’t speak Hindi, let alone Marathi.”
He did overcome the setbacks, and began to find a sense of belonging to the city. His daily schedule was dominated by training sessions, but on Sundays, he’d make it a point to visit the famous German Bakery – the same that had been attacked during the 2010 Pune bombings.
“Unfortunately, the incident had happened there, but I used to pretty much go there every weekend for the food,” he says. “I used to get non-veg food there,” he adds.
The chaat stalls near Deccan Gymkhana were frequent jaunts as well, and there was always time to get together with players from other tennis academies to enjoy a game of cricket and even carrom. “There were no mobile phones then to message, so you just fix a time and everybody would just show up. That was the beauty of it. Everything was fun to do with friends.”
Yet those were the early days of a player who’d go on to win 17 ATP doubles titles, reach the men’s doubles final at the 2010 US Open, and finally win his first Grand Slam at the 2017 French Open mixed doubles event.
And the world no 18 comes back to Pune as the defending champion of last year’s Chennai Open. His schedule is tight, but in his next trip to the hotel from the Balewadi Sports Complex, he’s hoping to perhaps make a quick detour to his old stomping ground at the Deccan Gymkhana.
“I’ve heard it’s been renovated and lots of changes have happened. But I’d love to take a look again.”