A Padmashri, world no.1 doubles ranking: it’s all happening for Rohan Bopanna

The gentle giant is in line to be the oldest player to win a men’s doubles slam title

Bopanna-Ebden at Australian Open (photo: Getty Images)
Bopanna-Ebden at Australian Open (photo: Getty Images)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

It’s not often that a greying athlete, two months short of 44 years, becomes the toast of the tennis fraternity at the grand slams. Yet, Rohan Bopanna just managed to do that when right on the back of ensuring a world No.1 ranked doubles player’s mantle come Monday, he and home boy Mathew Ebden stormed into the Indian’s first-ever men’s doubles final in Australian Open. 

The congratulatory messages, as Bopanna admitted during a chat with the broadcasters, have not stopped trickling in on his phone and the social media – but the one which got most traction was from numero uno Novak Djokovic. ‘’Congratulations Bops. Amazing effort. And to do it at such an young age. Even more impressive,’’ the Serbian wrote, his tongue firmly in cheek, in an Instagram story.  

There was another feather on his cap on the stroke of India’s Republic Day when Bopanna, along with squash ace Jyotsna Chinappa, was awarded the Padmashri – the fourth highest civilian honour from the government for excellence in any field.  

Come the final on Saturday, the Bopanna-Ebden duo will be up against the Italian unseeded pair of Simone Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori – putting him in line to be the oldest player to win a grand slam men’s doubles title. What goes under the radar is that he has a mixed doubles major before, albeit seven years back in the 2017 French Open alongside Gabriela Dabrowski, but what is remarkable is the fact he had been playing some of the best tennis of his career over the past few years with a body ravaged by time and injuries.        

A recap of his recent exploits will highlight it even more. Last year in Melbourne, he and Sania Mirza lost the mixed doubles final at a slam which he calls ‘home’ and then he and Ebden fell short in the 2023 US Open final – losing to Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury. There was another case of so-year-yet-so-far before when he and Pakistan’s Aisam Quereshi, famously called Indo-Pak Express, had lost out to the invincible Bryan brothers. 

Setting aside the emotional angle to it, one has to admit that men’s doubles is a bit of a parallel universe – it’s more a test of longevity and tactical nous which the elite singles players are not usually a part of apart from the Davis Cup and Olympics. There have been no dearth of older players in the doubles ecosystem: Rajeev Ram became a world No.1 at 38 and still one of the best around while Mike Bryan was No.1 at 41 years and Jean-Julien Rojer won the French Open at 40. 

Bopanna being honoured during his farewell Davis Cup match last year. (photo: AITA)
Bopanna being honoured during his farewell Davis Cup match last year. (photo: AITA)

However, the sense of awe strikes you when one realises that there is no cartilege in his knees and his body is in no position to do endurance training or routine mobility drills. It was exactly a decade back that Bopanna had reached his best-ever ranking of world No.3 while he was contemplating retirement at least four years back to ease the pain.  

What, then, is the secret behind the age-defying act of the affable Bangalorean, owner of a coffee plantation in the Coorg area ? If his chemistry with Australian Ebden has been one, Bopanna gave an insight into his behind-the-scenes mechanism: ‘’A lot of stuff goes behind the scenes. A big team is part of me. I just made sure I stay focussed on what I need to do to get ready, that is mobility and recovery. I do not look to lift heavy, just do yoga. I feel that mental strength helps me.’’ 

Sounds simple, because he makes it so. A late bloomer alright, but he will be very much in the running to sit in the same bracket as a Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania when the Bopanna is finally done. 

Finally, it’s all coming together for the gentle giant of Indian tennis – and he deserves all the accolades he is getting! 

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