The 6’ 3’’ tall player was taking small steps in the men’s world when Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were making waves in the doubles arena, and the Bangalorean was expected to fill the void in singles after deciding to turn pro.
Seven years after making that decision, however, the Kodava lad considers himself lucky to be able to keep his tennis career going. “As an Indian, it’s a hard decision to decide to turn a pro,” points out Bopanna, who made it to the Wimbledon doubles quarterfinals this year along with his Pakistani partner, Aisam-ul-Haq-Qureshi.
Over the last couple of years, Bopanna has considerably cut down on his singles appearances and, like his senior mates Paes and Bhupathi, has been concentrating on doubles. It’s not a decision made by choice, but the one forced upon him.
“My doubles career is what is keeping my tennis alive at the moment,” he makes a candid admission. “With singles, I am not making enough money even to travel anywhere, whereas the prize money I am earning in doubles is helping me at least partially bear my expenses.
“Obviously, I would love to play as many singles matches as possible, but if I give up on doubles, it’s very difficult for me to travel everywhere I want to. It’s a very practical decision that I have taken,” he explains.
That brings us to the question of sponsorship, and Bopanna doesn’t buy the theory that sponsors will follow once you start performing.
“It’s a classic case of no job without experience, and no experience without job,” he notes. “We need to compete regularly with the best in the world without bothering about how we are going to meet our expenses in the next tournament. It’s the only way to improve. It’s an expensive sport and this is the reason why you see so many juniors drop out. Even if you look at it from the sponsors’ point of view, the argument falls flat,” he says, pointing to Paes and Bhupathi.
“How many sponsors do Leander and Mahesh have? Can anyone say they haven’t yet proved themselves? Look at Leander’s performance in the Davis Cup, doesn’t it count for anything? Or for that matter his or Mahesh’s Grand Slam titles…”
With very few tournaments being held in India, Bopanna feels, the need of the sponsors is much more here than in other countries. “We just have an ATP tournament (Chennai Open) and a few Futures. If you see countries like France or Spain, they have some 30 Futures, 20 Challengers and four to five Tour events. That’s how the players come up playing in so many tournaments,” he elaborates.
The 30-year-old, however, agrees that there has been some progress as far as infrastructure in the country is concerned. “As I have seen it, the facilities are much better compared to what they were some ten years ago,” he says before adding: “But there is still so much to improve in terms of access to courts, quality coaches, the trainers and the physios. To have these people is an expensive affair because they charge you on weekly basis. Fortunately, Mahesh and I have a personal trainer -- Shyamji Vallabhji -- travelling with us for the past three years, and his presence has helped both of us a great deal,” he states.
With his career’s best few months -- which have seen him win two doubles titles, enter two finals, make the Wimbledon doubles quarters and secure India entry into the Davis Cup World group -- behind him, Bopanna is looking to improve upon that success now.
“The hard court season begins soon, it’s a very crucial time of the year leading up to the US Open and I am really looking forward to that.
“We also have the Davis Cup tie coming up against Brazil in Chennai, and then the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games… so there are plenty of things lined up for me,” he lists out.
Bopanna has also made international headlines for his association with his Pakistani partner Qureshi, but the Indian is clear that the two aren’t on any peace mission.
“Look, at the end of the day, we are playing together because it helps our respective careers,” he says while adding: “It’s nice if our association helps bring in some positive vibes between the two countries, but trust me, that’s not the primary reason why we are playing together.”