As Rio 2016 has already started, we discuss here the prospects of the tennis team of India.
With the International Tennis Federation doing away with the wildcard system for an Olympic berth, there will be no Indian presence in the men’s and women’s singles at Rio 2016. Hence, the onus lies entire on the three doubles teams – especially the mixed team of Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza – to bring home a medal from this racquet sport since Paes’ historic triumph 20 years ago.
In all, there would be three teams from the country in Rio 2016 – one each in men’s, women’s and mixed doubles. In the women’s draw, the world no. 1 Sania Mirza will be partnered by the unheralded Indian from the ITF tour – Prarthana Thombare. The 22-year old Prarthana who turned pro in 2012 has won 17 ITF doubles titles so far. With a current world ranking of 190, her team up with Mirza looks a tad bit contrasting. The silver lining in their pairing is perhaps the bronze that they won at Incheon Asian Games two years back.
Their first round opponents in Rio 2016 are the Chinese pair of Shuai Peng and Shuai Zhang. If they can cross the hurdles, the Indian ladies are likely to face sixth-seeded Czech team of Lucie Hradecká and Andrea Hlaváčková in round 2 and a quarter-final showdown against the second seeded and French Open champions Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic. However, it looks a difficult proposition for the Indian duo to progress beyond the second round.
In the men’s doubles, the world no. 10 Rohan Bopanna will team up with Leander Paes – the latter making a record seventh Olympic appearance. Though Paes had won four mixed doubles Grand Slam titles since pairing up with Switzerland’s Martina Hingis, the Indian veteran’s recent career graph in men’s doubles seems to be a continuous downward curve. The world no. 46 has not won a Major doubles title since 2013 US Open. Apart from his current form and title drought, the more important factor is whether the Indian pair can put aside their differences and come together as a team. Earlier, Bopanna expressed his desire to pair up with Saketh Myneni ahead of the 18-Slam winner. However after the intervention by the national tennis federation, Bopanna agreed to provide Paes with a ticket to make his name in the Olympic appearances record book.
Prior to the Games, since 2007 the pair had played just seven times together – with four wins from them. Recently last month, they played together to register a win over South Korea at a Davis Cup zonal tie. In a field of 32, the pair had to win four matches to make a podium finish – and all five in succession for the gold. With the Polish team of Lukasz Kubot and Marcin Matkowski their opening round opponents, the Paes-Bopanna pair could face either the Czech team of Radek Stepanek and Lukas Rosol or the eighth-seeded Spanish duo of Roberto Agut Bautista Agut and David Ferrer. Their biggest hurdle would be a potential quarter-final clash with the Wimbledon champions and top-seeded French pair of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut. Despite having the experience in their stride, it looks difficult for the duo to come back home with a medal.
India’s best medal hopes in tennis thus lie with the mixed doubles team of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna. With both the individuals inside top 10 in the circuit, they look to form a well compatible pair – both in terms of personal and professional bonding – which is missing in the other two teams. Though many would have professed for Paes over Bopanna owing to the team mixed Slam (winning each of the four Grand Slams by the same pair) won by the former with Hingis over the last 18 month period, it is as naïve as asking for a medal from Sania and Prarthana as the joint world no. 1 Indian too boasts of super success at big tournaments owing to her partnership with the same Swiss lady Hingis. Doubles is a team game coupled with mutual equation and one must look beyond individual brilliance in this discipline.
Last time, Sania was forced by the federation to partner Paes at the London Olympics where the pair bowed out at the quarters. It was clear that the Doha Asian Games gold medalist pair does not share much rapport these days – with the Hyderabad girl winning two mixed Slams with Mahesh Bhupathi and partnering Bopanna for the Indian Aces at the International Premier Tennis League of late. It is just the role reversal this time with Bopanna getting to partner Mirza on account of a better ranking (Paes too was ranked world no. 6 in doubles at London 2012).
With Bopanna’s lethal serves on his day and Mirza’s forehand winners on return and offensive ground strokes, the duo looks the country’s best bet in the 16 team pot. As many as two wins will take them to the semis and at least a win in two attempts from there will be enough for a podium finish. But they are certainly going to face some of the top tennis players from around the world and that 16-team draw in the mixed will be quite an all-star line-up which is scheduled to be made in a day’s time.
Do you think India will get any tennis medal in Rio 2016? Share your thoughts in the comments below!