| Mumbai |
Published: August 25, 2018 12:28:57 am
Since the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, the men’s doubles tennis event has been a sure-shot medal for India. Consider the stats: in the last six Asiads, the country has won four gold, one silver and two bronze medals. By now, the podium finish is the least that is expected, and the same went for the team of Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan.
In the duo, India had fielded a pair that had never won gold at the Asian Games. Before Friday, Bopanna had a bronze medal to his credit — at the Busan Games in 2002 — while Sharan teamed up with Yuki Bhambri for bronze at Incheon 2014. The lack of gold in their respective trophy cabinets is what gave them the desire to get it.
And when they finally won 6-3, 6-4 against the Kazakh pair of Alexander Bublik and Denis Yevseyev, there was no famed chest-bump celebration, just a warm embrace and wide smiles.
“There’s no way to describe this feeling because there’s never been a gold before, neither of us have won it,” says Bopanna. “Winning the gold medal for the country, you don’t get to do that very often. Divij and I pushed each other hard to get this.”
As the no 1 seeds, they had the experience, better world rankings than their competitors, and in Bopanna, the only player at the Games to have won a senior Grand Slam.
Gold was widely expected, but by no means was it a straight-forward journey.
In the quarterfinals, against a spirited pair from Chinese Taipei, which included Cheng Peng Hsieh, the younger brother of former women’s doubles world no 1 and two-time doubles major winner Su Wei Hsieh, the Indians found strong opponents.
“There was a lot of pressure on us in that match and the one in the semi-finals,” says Sharan. “We had to really work hard for every point. But that’s where our experience helped us. It was about just knowing the right points and winning the crucial ones.”
When they played Japan’s Sho Shimabukuro and Kaito Uesugi in the semi-finals, they faced a team that had done their homework and were sticking to a meticulously devised strategy. The East Asians took the first set after their set pattern hassled and harried the Indian pair.
A change in plan was in order, and the Indians knew just what to do.
“In that short break between the sets, we decided to switch sides. I’d move to the deuce-court and Divij would play on the left,” explains Bopanna. “They had a set pattern and probably knew what to do when they saw us play in the previous rounds. But when we switched, they were completely rattled.”
The channels out wide had suddenly opened up as Bopanna and Sharan placed shots down the line for winners. When the young Japanese moved to cover the lines, cross-court shots started opening them up yet again. “I had tried this strategy while playing with Mahesh (Bhupathi). It worked then, and it worked now,” Bopanna adds.
Winning gold at the Asian Games, an event not rated the most prized in tennis, does however have great value for Sharan. The 32-year-old southpaw has improved in rank and caliber significantly over the last few years, but opportunities to represent the national team have not been frequent.
Till date, Sharan has played just one Davis Cup tie for India, back in 2012.
“I’ve been improving a lot over the years and I have been involved with Davis Cup and Asian Games before,” he says. “But this medal definitely stands out. It’s right up there.”
For Bopanna, playing at the Asian Games nearly didn’t happen. Since his injury at Wimbledon, the 38-year-old had not played a competitive match, and wasn’t sure of his participation at Palembang either. He finally made that decision last Sunday, a day before he was to play in the men’s and mixed doubles events. “I wasn’t too sure about my injury holding up. But by the evening practice session on Sunday I was feeling much better,” he says. “Looking back now, I’m very happy I decided to play.”
Physically, Bopanna was stressed. When news broke out about the floods last week in Kerala and his native Coorg, he had a mental strain too. “My parents were in a condition better than most, so they were helping organize shelter and food for people affected,” he says. “I’ve been in touch with them constantly, and I’ve been making calls from here trying to get supplies sorted out as well.”
The grind hasn’t ended however for Bopanna or Sharan. There isn’t even much time for celebration. Instead, they’ve already packed their bags and are expected to fly to New York — hours after winning gold. The US Open beckons.
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