Disappointing that, at 43, I’ll be the only Indian at Wimbledon: Rohan Bopanna

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2023 has already been quite the year for Rohan Bopanna. He reached the mixed doubles final at the Australian Open alongside Sania Mirza in her farewell Major. At 43, he then became the oldest player to win an ATP 1000 event, partnering Australia’s Mathew Ebden to the Indian Wells title. A return to the top 10 – he is now 11th – eventually followed suit.

Yet, despite what he has achieved, a tinge of loneliness has been creeping in. “I keep telling Sania that I miss her on tour,” he told The Indian Express from London, where he is gearing up to play Wimbledon for the 13th time. “Tennis is already such a lonely sport, it would be nice to have others from your own country to share this space.”

Sports like tennis do not quite have the ability to whip up hyper-nationalist frenzy like cricket today, or hockey in the past. The novelty effect of the Olympics is also missing. So, it can be easy to forget that underperformance was not always the norm in Indian tennis.

Not too long ago, Bopanna was joined on the tour with doubles specialists that had multiple Grand Slams, and a women’s singles player that cracked the top 30 of the world. Go further back in the past and Indians have reached singles quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and Davis Cup finals.

But if India overachieved in tennis in the past, it is distinctly underachieving today. India has exactly one singles player ranked in the top 200 in the world – Ankita Raina, who is 197th. After Raina lost in the first round of singles qualifying, without injuries to others resulting in alternates, Bopanna, who is seeded sixth alongside Ebden in the men’s doubles, will be the only Indian at SW19 this year.

“At 43, to say that I am the only player representing India at Wimbledon, is very disappointing,” he said.

“For 20 years I’ve been on tour, and the sport has not grown in the country. Unfortunately, the federation has not ensured a structure and system. You can host one Challenger here, one tournament there, but there is no structure, no way for promising players at Under-12, Under-14 level to build on their journey, no way to create pathways for them.”

“I really hope it changes, because we needed that change yesterday,” he added.

Bopanna believes that onus should not be on Indian players to go abroad to develop their careers, giving the example of Ben Shelton, the American World No. 35. Shelton already cracked the top 100 before he ever left his country. His first visit abroad was for the Australian Open this year, where he reached the singles quarterfinal.

The doubles veteran is disappointed that this year, India lost their only ATP event which it hosted for the last 27 years, as well as the WTA event held in Chennai last year, and that other than Grand Slams and ATP 1000 events, tennis is not televised in India. “In any sport, only if you watch it will you be inspired,” he said.

Regarding his own form and fitness, Bopanna is upbeat. He comes into Wimbledon in as good form as he has been in many years. Even after over two decades on tour, and serious injuries that sidelined him for long and have wiped out the cartilage in his knees, he says his competitiveness and mental strength have kept him hungry.

Even if the surface can be physically brutal, given his previous experience and likeness for grass, he is fancying his chances at SW19.

“To be honest this surface is the toughest on the body. With the ball staying low and with no cartilage in my knees, the soreness after playing is much higher,” the former French Open champion said. “But we’ve played plenty of Davis Cup ties on grass back home so I am more used to it, and that experience definitely helps.”

It is a busy second half of the year for Bopanna, who will next go to the US in the buildup to the US Open, and immediately travel back to India for what will be his last Davis Cup tie in Lucknow – which he would have liked to play at home in Bangalore. He will then travel to Hangzhou to defend his Asian Games title.

“For any athlete to be competing for so long, and to be representing your country for over 20 years, is definitely a moment of pride” he says.

He is not being premature in looking forward to a last Olympics push. Qualification for India remains uncertain. With combined ranking unlikely to be enough, either a singles player will need to reach the final at the Asiad, or Bopanna will need to keep a place in the top 10 of the ATP rankings.

“Of course I would love to play in Paris, but there is no certainty about who I will play with” he said. “It will be really sad if we don’t have representation from the country.”



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