Hindsight, they say, is a wonderful gift. After Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna crashed out in the first round of the men’s doubles in Rio on Saturday, a lot of people must have been looking for Saketh Myneni. Not that Myneni is a doubles genius and his partnership with Bopanna would have ensured a medal for India. But, the chances of winning one would have improved.
The prelude to this epic debacle was overwhelmingly impassioned and expectedly sentimental. The spectacle itself, however, bordered on the embarrassing.
Paes is, perhaps, India’s only genuinely world-class sporting hero and the clamour for his inclusion was understandable, if not a tad too jingoistic. Maybe, the best team wasn’t picked but the Indian administrators had somehow managed to get the country’s best tennis player on board: a winner of 17 Grand Slams and millions of doubles matches. Not such a bad thing, one would have imagined.
But, then, Paes’ familiar haughtiness saw him reach the Brazilian capital only a day before the event was to start – reportedly, he didn’t even get a room in the Olympic village. Both Bopanna and Zeeshan Ali, the Indian team’s coach at Rio, knew little about Paes’ whereabouts. The 43-year-old was apparently away in the US, participating in a World Team Tennis event. Such reprehensible behaviour from a man who only a few weeks ago was fervently talking about another Olympic medal befuddles the brain. And, to think that the men’s doubles was one of India’s better chances to win a medal, Paes’ AWOL act seems all the more excruciating.
On Saturday, Paes and Bopanna surrendered their serve thrice despite being a break up in the first set against the Polish pair of Marcin Matkowski and Lukasz Kubot. Both Matkowski and Kubot are seasoned doubles specialists but neither has weapons that should’ve ideally troubled the Indian duo. Matkowski, in fact, looks like a weightlifter who has been forcibly flung on to a tennis court.
But, this catastrophe went beyond the quality of tennis. Paes and Bopanna talked little during the match, did nothing to lift each other, and the camaraderie that can often help swing tennis matches seemed like a hopeless, distant reality throughout. This occasion was crying out the kind of chemistry that Paes once shared with Radek Stepanek, or the sparking bond that has seen Bopanna and Florin Mergea win so many matches together.
Instead, it turned out to be a sluggish non-event whose outcome was decided the moment it got under way. The first serve was terribly off and so was the net play – the lack of playing time together was startlingly apparent. Doubles, at times, can be funny business: some of the top teams end up losing to lesser opponents in one-sided matches. Even then, a first-round exit at the hands of an average team is an unforgivable disappointment.
This defeat will only deepen the divide between Paes and Bopanna. Moreover, this will cast a shadow over the possibility of the two playing together for India in the Davis Cup.
Given Paes’ bumptious ways, it is easy to hold him responsible for a defeat that has pretty much extinguished any Indian hopes of landing a tennis medal at these Games. But, Bopanna, too, has in the past done very little to repair a partnership whose antipathy has threatened to spill over every once in a while. Asked about where Paes was in the run-up to their opening match, Bopanna was crudely honest, saying he had little clue about his partner – a disturbing confirmation of the rancour that has afflicted this relationship for so long now.
It is unfortunate that two outstanding players failed to bury the hatchet and unite for a tournament that would have added extra gloss to two already formidable careers. Mahesh Bhupathi’s summing up was apt. Somewhere close to the conclusion to this lamentable affair, Bhupathi simply tweeted, “So frustrating”.