Having been left out of India’s Davis Cup squad for the tie against New Zealand in February, Rohan Bopanna is now solely focussed on his Grand Slam dream. The world No. 28 will join forces with Uruguay’s Pablo Cuevas, who won the 2008 French Open doubles title with Luis Horna, later this season.
On the sidelines of the Chennai Open, where he starts his 2017 campaign in the company of fellow Indian Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, 36-year-old Bopanna opened up about his goals and what is hurting Indian tennis. Excerpts from the interview:
The start of a new year; the same Grand Slam dream for you?
Winning a Slam has to be the final goal. I have reached the 2010 US Open final [with Aisam Qureshi]; now, it’s about taking the next step.
And how far do you think you are from that goal?
When you are winning tournaments, when you are beating players who then go on to win Grand Slams, you know you are not very far. It’s a matter of stringing six matches together. That’s what is going to make a difference. For the coming year, I thought of playing with a partner who is already playing at a high level, has won a Grand Slam in doubles, so the occasion doesn’t take over. We both play positive tennis. The style of play I had with Florin [Mergea], somebody who serves and stays back, is similar with Pablo.
The whole business of chopping and changing in doubles partnerships, how much has that affected your progress? There was a time when doubles used to be all about steady teams.
The rules have changed now. Singles players are allowed to use their ranking to get into tournaments. Also, Florin sent me an email saying he wanted to find a new partner, so that left me no choice but to look for a new partner. When somebody makes a decision as a professional athlete, you respect that decision and move on. Among the guys who were available, I thought Pablo was the right fit for me.
You are not part of the Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in February, but looking at the bigger picture, what are your goals for India?
Representing the country is already a huge thing. I have been doing it from 2002. For me, it’s important to have a great system in place. Not only for me, but for the younger kids. It’s not only at Davis Cup level, [but] right from the grassroots level. You put norms into place and knowing this is what we follow, there will be no controversy in Indian tennis. Unfortunately, that’s not there.
Players make a lot of sacrifices. Not only players, but their families and coaches [too]. They play consistently throughout the year to climb up the rankings. At that point in time, if there is a system in place, everybody knows, ‘This guy is ranked higher than me, he gets selected,’ and that’t it. There’s no argument over it. I got so many calls from parents, saying this goes on even at junior levels. I don’t understand why we keep having same discussions all the time. It does not help any player, it does not help any person who is watching. It’s just about doing the right thing for the sport and for the country.
How do you deal with it personally?
You don’t want to be in a situation like that. You want to play freely, you don’t really want to think about things. Looking at the future, it’s time some changes happened. If you want champions to come out, players doing well, representing the country in Olympics, it has to be a positive atmosphere.
Personally, I don’t want to deal with it, but then sometimes the frustration boils over and I talk, sometimes it doesn’t. You don’t need that as a player. I don’t want the future players to have the same struggles. If somebody is listening to my voice, to help with the future, great.
Looking from the outside, it seems that Indian tennis is all about controversies.
It is. Not just about looking that way.
Given all the issues surrounding team selection, do you think there could be a sense of disillusionment among the younger players?
I hope not, because there is nothing bigger than playing for your country. We don’t want that bitterness. When we are playing on the ATP circuit everything is going smoothly. At the end of the day, the ATP calendar is already packed. Constantly playing tennis, being on the road, it’s very hard for the players to commit themselves. They are committing to it only to play for India. But after a certain point, if it keeps going on, not many people are probably going to want to do it.
You are 36 now. Coming back to your Grand Slam dream, do you feel like the clock is ticking faster?
Winning a Grand Slam is the toughest thing possible. [In the] last 16 Slams, there have been 13 different winners. There haven’t been any consistent winners. Even the Bryan brothers haven’t won one for a while. I keep getting asked whether I am in a drought. It seems like everybody thinks [that] if you are in a Slam, [the] next day you have to go and win it. Actually, even making the Grand Slam draw is something [great]. Because we come from a place where there is zero system in place. Fighting through that is already a challenge. I started competing as a professional only at 22, but in tennis there are players starting at the age of 17, 18 on the tour and playing at a high-level. So I am not looking at the age at all. As long as I’m fit, I’m playing, I’m fine.