PUNE: When the doubles draw for the Tata Open Maharashtra was made on Saturday, there were a few raised eyebrows when defending champions Rohan Bopanna and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan were scheduled to face Leander Paes and Purav Raja in the opening round. As far as narratives go, this was the Hollywood draw — Paes in one corner, with Bopanna on the other. There was also the small matter of Davis Cup captain Mahesh Bhupathi watching on from the sidelines.
Two of the best exponents of doubles play in India currently going head to head did not even begin to justify why this had the potential to be a show-stopper. They had enough of a past to put a couple of history books to shame. They are not necessarily the best of friends. So when the match began, shortly after 8.45 pm on an increasingly chilly Tuesday night, the prospect of fireworks was very much alive. But once the match began, the excitement died down faster than a wet deepavali cracker. Paes and Raja, a combination that joined hands at the back end of last season, were outclassed and out-hit off the court 6-3, 6-2 in less than one hour — 57 minutes, 24 seconds to be exact.
The domination was so total, some of the statistics from the second stanza had to be cross-checked multiple times. Here’s one. The Bopanna-Nedunchezhiyan combine had won 16 points on their serve out of a total of 18. It was closer in the first set but there were ominous signs right from the beginning of the contest. Paes, who is usually so good at the net, missed easy volleys on at least three occasions in a 10 minute period and that was the opening Bopanna and Nedunchezhiyan needed. They drove a car through it, especially the latter who was easily one of the best players on show on the day.
And Bopanna was quick to recognise that in the post-match press conference. “We played extremely well,” he said. “Jeevan especially who executed his play to perfection. He plays his best tennis when he is constantly on the move, being very aggressive. He has that energy about him.” He may be ranked World No 102 but the 28-year-old played like he belonged in the top-10. Cute flicks, acute drops and powerful smashes... you name it and he exhibited that skill to perfection.
To be fair, Paes and Raja also pressed the self-destruct button. The latter’s service was all over the place — he was broken all four times — while the former’s famed energy and trickery were missing in a strange performance. He didn’t try to feed off the crowd, one of his usual tropes, and his net play left a lot to be desired. More damagingly for Paes, this is the fourth consecutive time he has lost to Bopanna in an ATP World Tour match. He last beat Bopanna (who was with Bhupathi at the time) in the company of Jurgen Melzer at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2013.
When asked if targeting the Raja serve was a ploy, Bopanna replied, “We didn’t really target anyone’s serve, in theory, you want to break every time the opponent serves. It just so happened that we broke Purav every time he served.” It’s back to the drawing board for the permanent pairing while the other two march on ahead.
Select results: Men’s singles (1st round): Ilya Ivashka (BLR) bt Sumit Nagal (IND) 6-3, 6-3, Robin Haase (NED x5), Yuki Bhambri (IND) bt Arjun Kadhe (IND) 6-3, 6-4, Laslo Djere (SRB) bt Marius Copil (ROU) 5-7, 6-4, 7-5. Select matches(WED, 2nd round): Yuki Bhambri (IND) vs Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA x8), Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP x3) vs Gilles Simon (FRA), Marin Cilic (CRO x1) vs Ramkumar Ramanathan (IND).