There were times, in 2019 and early 2020, when Indian tennis player Rohan Bopanna would wake up with stinging pain in his knees and not want to step on the court. The mileage he had put on the pro tennis tour – more than 16 years at the time – had worn the cartilage out, causing the bones to brush against each other.
All that seems a distant memory now as Bopanna resurfaced into the top-10 of men’s doubles tennis after seven long years. The latest ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals, men’s tennis governing body) rankings, released on 22 May, saw the Indian placed at No 9 in doubles. At 43, he’s the oldest member of the top 10, and in fact, the top-100, in men’s doubles.
Bopanna has to jog his memory when asked about the last time he was part of the elite club. “Maybe six or seven years,” Bopanna told Lounge. June 2016, to be precise. “It’s been a long time. With the pain I had in my knee I never thought it would be possible.”
When the tennis tour was suspended in 2020 due to the covid-19 pandemic, Bopanna had turned to Iyengar Yoga for his knee pain. “It’s more of an active yoga, not just about breathing,” he said. “I used to do it four times a week for three months. It helped strengthen the muscles around the knee and take the load off the joint. They use a lot of props: blocks, ropes, different kinds of strength work. Also, you are using your own body weight.”
The yoga props became the staples in his tennis kit bag. Once he could move and play pain free, Bopanna began his march up the ranking ladder once again.
The 6’4 Indian player, who earned the nickname ‘Bofors Bops’ early on in his career for his explosive serve, always had the ingredients for a blockbuster game. Unlike the star Indian players before him, Bopanna’s game is built on power. His forehand and single-handed backhand, when he hits it fast and furious, can unsettle the most seasoned of campaigners. That firepower from the backcourt gives him an edge in doubles, where the main currency is angles and deception.
Though Bopanna now has a few more greys in his salt and pepper beard, the sting in his shots still remain. In the latter half of his career, Bopanna has invested a lot more in staying physically fit for the grind. Bopanna has been ranked in the top-50 in men’s doubles for more than a decade now – June 2010 was the last time he was ranked outside the top-50.
“I feel like tennis is like starting your own company,” he said. “You have to put in capital, keep putting in the effort, not knowing where it is going to end up. This is what I have done for a decade. Investing in a coach, investing in a physio. That’s why I have been able to sustain it. If you don’t give yourself the best chance to compete with the best, you won’t get too far.”
Starting this year, Bopanna fine-tuned his training routine once again. Sports physiotherapist Rebecca Van Orshaegen, whom he met during the Antwerp tournament last year, has been travelling with him this season and has made sure he stays fit and fresh for the challenge. Bopanna now emphasises on working smart rather than just working hard.
“Sometimes, if I am not playing a match, I take two days off just to recover,” he said. “Earlier I would think like there is a day off I have to practice more and that ended up putting strain on the body. The biggest change is that I have been doing more mobility and stretching drills. At least an hour before getting on the court, I start doing these exercises. Also, wherever there has been a chance for an ice bath I have been doing that right after, be it after the fitness training or practice day, match day.”
All that has added up to a sterling start to the year. Bopanna reached the finals of the Australian Open mixed doubles, along with Sania Mirza. In men’s doubles, with Australian partner Matt Ebden, he has captured two titles: Doha and Indian Wells. The duo is currently the No 1 team in the Race to Turin – the ATP World Tour Finals.
He is particularly proud of the Indian Wells triumph. Bopanna won the prestigious ATP 1000 event, popularly known as the fifth Grand Slam, for the first time in his 12th visit to the tournament. Bopanna-Ebden beat Canadian singles stars Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime in the quarterfinals, unseated defending champions John Isner and Jack Sock in the semis and defeated top seeds Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski to clinch the title. It also saw Bopanna become the oldest ATP Masters winner.
“Winning Indian Wells finally was incredible,” said Bopanna, on claiming his first Masters title since 2017. “Especially since we get so many Indian supporters coming out there.” The Indian also got incredibly close to winning the Madrid Masters, but he and Ebden had to settle for a runners-up finish. “Now, every time I step on court, I feel like I belong there,” he said. “I have been around for a long time, and I feel like I can compete in the biggest arenas, the closest matches. I don’t feel rushed.”
For most part, Bopanna’s career has overlapped with three of India’s biggest sporting stars: Mirza, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. While the Coorgi (is this the right usage? Does he hail from Coorg) hasn’t quite had the results, or star power, to match, he has marched on and carved a successful career for himself.
“My perseverance has been my biggest strength,” said the 2017 French Open mixed doubles champion. “No matter what, I try to find a way to work things. Like in 2020, I thought, ‘let me try yoga.’ That has also helped my mental clarity; calm the body, calm the mind.”
Bopanna adds: “When it comes to Sania, Leander and Mahesh, I always learnt from them. We need somebody to represent, to be at that level. That’s how you get inspired. It’s extremely lonely on the tour now. I am grateful that I am still able to play. Be it singles or doubles, we just need a few people to be there at that level. Otherwise, everybody in that sport is going to die down. Whether it is those playing, watching, or somebody writing about it.”
With none of the younger players able to consistently compete at the Grand Slam level, in singles or doubles, Bopanna will once again lead the Indian challenge at this year’s French Open, which begins on Sunday, 28 May.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.