Ahead of the Olympics, the mixed doubles event was frequently touted to be the most competitive of the tennis disciplines. Steadily however, the prospective field depleted as injuries and the Zika threat wrecked havoc. Simultaneously though, on paper, the pair of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna was increasingly pegged as one of the favourites, even getting the fourth seed in the 16-team knockout event.
On Friday, in their quarterfinal match, the Indian pair had the current Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and one of the upcoming tennis stars Heather Watson on the other side of the court. But it wasn’t a Murray-Watson duo that was at its best on the day. Murray’s laboured movement was layered with fatigue, given that the Scot had played a gruelling three-setter against Steve Johnson in their men’s singles quarterfinal match. The 24-year-old Watson, meanwhile, was simply off colour, and the weak-link in the Britain pairing. The Indians closed out the match in straight sets, winning 6-4, 6-4 to move to the semi-finals.
More importantly, Mirza and Bopanna are now just a win away from winning a medal. A victory in the semi-final against Americans Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram will put them into the gold medal match, while a loss will take them to the bronze medal playoff. On the night they took on the British pair nonetheless, there was a faint optimism that steadily grew within the Indian camp. They did drop serve in the very first game of the match, but were eager enough to break back immediately. The plan henceforth seemed simple enough. As both Mirza and Bopanna have asserted in countless interviews over their respective careers, it was just a matter of playing to their strengths.
Mirza on her favoured right-side of court powered her famed forehand topspin shots across the net to great effect. Watson often shanked the return or even got a feeble pass as a reply, which an eager Bopanna, positioned at the net, would smash home. While the 29-year-old had greatly increased the productivity of her forehand compared to how she fared against Australia in the opening round, her 36-year-old partner, who boasts a strong serve, had found a lethal touch to his service game as well.
Then there was the Indians’ greater experience on the doubles court that provided a tactical advantage as well. True to the demands of the doubles game, Murray would charge towards the net after launching a serve, but both Bopanna and Mirza knew where exactly to place their return – right at Murray’s feet. The three-time Grand Slam winner, who finished with a gold and silver in the singles and mixed doubles event at London 2012, would be forced to bend low to retrieve the shot, only to find the net.
Mirza and Bopanna also managed to find gaps in their opponents’ coverage of the court – more particularly straight down the middle, between Murray and Watson.
The win now puts them just a win away from becoming only the second and third Indians to win an Olympic medal in tennis. Ironically, ahead of the quadrennial tournament, it was the presence of the country’s first Olympic tennis hero Leander Paes that casted a dim light over a possible Mirza-Bopanna partnership. The 1996 Atlanta Games bronze medallist in the men’s singles event had voiced his eagerness to be a part of the Indian contingent, in both the men’s doubles and mixed doubles events.
Eventually, it was the ranking system – based on which the final 16 teams are decided that came to the pair’s aid – that prevented another mudslinging contest. At the time of the final ranking cutoffs published on June 6, Paes was 46th, Bopanna ninth, and Mirza was first in the women’s doubles. As such, Bopanna and Mirza’s combined ranking of 10 had a stronger chance of making the mixed doubles cut than if she teamed up with Paes.
Now, at Rio, they are just a win away from being vindicated in their stand.