For Rohan Bopanna, 2019 had got off to a great start, with him and Divij Sharan winning the Tata Open title in Pune in the first week of the year. But the pair's inability to get a combined ranking good enough to compete at more Masters series events meant they have had to play with different partners through the year.
Now, with the Tokyo Olympics a little less than a year away, Bopanna is hoping to reunite with Sharan for more events.
"Around March, we were forced to change partners," says Bopanna. "Our rankings weren't high enough. It was either [a case of] change partners or don't play at all. So, with Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, which were six big events, we had no option but to constantly change."
Since four events with Sharan to start the year with, Bopanna has played with six different partners -- Dominic Ingolt, Marius Copil, Pablo Cuevas (his partner at Wimbledon as well), Pablo Carreno Busta and Benoit Paire -- but his most consistent partnership this year has been with left-handed Denis Shapovalov of Canada.
At 20, Shapovalov is considered one of the brighter prospects on the singles circuit, and Bopanna feels his partner's naturally aggressive game makes his a perfect complementary style to his own. "Every time it's a tough ball, I just say, 'You!' It doesn't happen often that you have a partner who's younger by 19 years," jokes Bopanna. "I think he's an extremely talented tennis player, especially his serve that is so tough to read. When I am at the net and he's serving, I can look at the opponent and I can tell that they are guessing. That's when I know we are in a great position. He loves to play doubles, because he's an aggressive tennis player and he loves to come to the net. That's helped him in singles as well."
There's a tinge of pain when Bopanna remembers the Olympic medal that got away in 2016 at the Rio Games. Sania Mirza and Bopanna looked in complete control, 6-2, 1-2 on serve, during their mixed doubles semi-final against Rajeev Ram and Venus Williams of the U.S.
Venus, a quiet, error-prone presence on court till then, chose the fourth game to warm up to the task of getting some precision to go with her power, and the Indian pair went on to lose in the super tie-break, eventually missing out on a bronze medal too.
"I don't want to bring that back up now, it has been a few years," says Bopanna. "But having said that, now we know we have a great chance. We have been in that situation, and tomorrow when we're there, we'll know what we did [wrong]. I really think we have a great chance to win a medal -- constantly playing on the circuit, and knowing all the players. I've loved playing in Japan. I have won titles in Tokyo. I love the conditions, and also being in Asia, it's good for us."
Bopanna, who made his Davis Cup debut in 2002, looks at the advancement in training methods in the sport and the increasing knowledge about it with amazement, especially when he sees younger wards at his own academy that he set up three years ago in Bengaluru. "I see what they get as knowledge, I don't think I had that. Of training for tennis," he says. "Back then, it was just training. Whoever the athlete was, it was just training -- run four rounds or such. Specifically, tennis-driven training would have made a huge difference. But at that point of time, nobody really had that kind of knowledge unless you travelled outside and that became very expensive to do, especially without any support."
Bopanna agrees that India has miles to go to catch up with advanced countries like France, the U.S. or Canada, and says that the emphasis must be on playing more matches. "We need more and more players pushing the players who are there, so that they too maintain their level and standard," he says. "Being such a big country, we can have more tournaments -- even if each state has a Challenger, that's good enough. We'll have tonnes and tonnes of talent coming up."
According to Bopanna, while no player starts off in their career wanting to specialise in doubles, the sport has become tougher in recent times with top singles players also featuring more regularly in doubles. The partnership with Shapovalov has helped Bopanna notch up a few improved performances -- the Stuttgart final in June and the Montreal semi-finals in August -- but a good relationship off the surface matters most for a good team to be successful.
"In tough situations -- it's like a marriage -- if you are good together with your partner, you will overcome them," he says. "But if you're both [pulling] in different directions, it's very hard. [Say,] during a super tiebreak, if it is tied at 5-5, it will be tough if the chemistry is not there.
"No matter what happens, the camaraderie is key."