Rohan Bopanna has rarely been the one for grand gestures or chest-thumping patriotism. But on Sunday, after he had played the final Davis Cup match of his career, the Indian tennis star allowed himself a few moments of indulgence – he set his India jersey on the court, resting it one final time and took a lap of honour with an Indian flag draped around his shoulders. For 21 years, in his own understated way, Bopanna had represented his team and country with distinction.
On Sunday, he teamed up with Yuki Bhambri to defeat Elliot Benchetrit and Younes Lalami Laaroussi 6-2, 6-1 in the doubles rubber to get India back on track in the Davis Cup World Group II tie against Morocco. India went on to win the two-day tie, held in Lucknow over the weekend, 4-1 and book their berth in the World Group I playoff.
“It is sad to be leaving the Davis Cup team, but I am proud to have played for such a long time,” the 43-year-old told reporters after the tie against Morocco. “All the teammates I have been with, the captains I have played under, it's been a great journey and a great learning experience. It was definitely emotional, especially when I saw my family.”
While Bopanna decided to step down from the Davis Cup team and give the younger players in the team an opportunity, he will continue playing on the professional tour. Ranked No 7 in the world currently, the Indian has scripted a career turnaround this season – only a few days ago he became the oldest man to reach a Grand Slam final in men’s doubles when he made the US Open championship clash (with Australian partner Matthew Ebden). Bopanna also won his first Indian Wells Masters (known as the fifth Grand Slam) title and returned to the top-10 in the world earlier this year.
“There is no temptation to reverse my decision (of retiring from Davis Cup) despite the results. In 2002, I played a dead rubber. Now, I am leaving after a match where two guys made their Indian debut,” he said, hinting at the circle of life.
It is one hefty chapter of his career shut. While Bopanna was never India’s Davis Cup talisman, in the same way that the Krishnans (Ramanathan and son Ramesh), Amritrajs (Vijay and brother Anand), Leander Paes or Mahesh Bhupathi were, it was one stage where he consistently punched above his weight. Thrown in the wilderness of the pro singles tour, he didn’t quite make it big despite wielding a powerful serve and groundstrokes. But here, in the shadow of the giants, in the huddle of his teammates, Bopanna thrived.
Two of his best Davis Cup performances came in singles. The first was in 2008, when he outlasted a teenaged Kei Nishikori 7-6 (6-2), 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 in the stifling Delhi heat in an Asia-Oceania Group I tie. Nishikori hadn’t quite come into his own then, but he was still ranked higher (118 to Bopanna’s 325) and was well on his way to tennis stardom. Bopanna was also struggling with a knee injury at the time.
Two years later, Bopanna completed the most remarkable Indian comeback as he clinched the decider. As Somdev Devvarman and Bopanna, who was already exclusively playing doubles on the pro tour by then, lost their singles matches on the opening day, India trailed Brazil 0-2 in the World Group Playoff tie. Paes-Bhupathi won the doubles to keep India afloat. There was some respite for India on the third day as Devvarman’s opponent retired mid-way through their match due to the draining heat. In the final and deciding match, Bopanna scored a 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3 win over Ricardo Mello to seal victory. It was the first time since their Davis Cup debut in 1921 that India had overturned a 0-2 deficit in the competition.
“Winning that fifth match from being 0-2 down was truly special,” Bopanna told the Press Trust of India last week. “Having match points on the first day and then losing... it is amazing that you go through so many emotions. When you lose, you are devastated. And, then, to come back and do something you have never done before that, for me is the best tie.”
With Paes and Bhupathi playing for India for a long time, Bopanna often had to sit on the sidelines in doubles despite his immense talent and easy power. But once they left, the 6 feet 4 inch player took on the role of the leader, without being overbearing or assertive.
His experience has proven invaluable for a young Indian team in a flux in recent years. Over the course of his career, Bopanna has seen India withering away in the Davis Cup. Three-time finalists in the competition, India dropped down the Group II for the very first time in the Davis Cup earlier this year. Between prioritising individual performance, too many experiments with the Davis Cup format borne out of financial greed and the hectic tour schedule, the tournament just doesn’t hold the appeal for the younger generation.
“The love of playing Davis Cup is missing,” he said of the current Indian team. “They just look at it as another tournament. The Davis Cup atmosphere is why at 43, I'm coming out to play…it is what changed my life. Everybody is just focussed on what they need to do and not really figuring out what is (the) best scenario for the team.”
With Bopanna leaves the last of India’s Davis Cup romantics. And that, more than his talent, experience and diligence, may prove the biggest void to fill for Indian tennis.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter