Ro-BoTop: Bopanna, level 43 and world #1, adds a men’s doubles Grand Slam title to his name

There is something poetic about the oldest man to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era also winning his first-ever men’s doubles title.

It’s a unique marker of Rohan Bopanna’s unique achievement when he and Matt Ebden won the Australian Open, their first Major together. Bopanna called it the best moment of his career, and it indeed is.

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This first men’s doubles Major comes a month short of his turning 44, after 20-odd years on the pro circuit, and days after becoming world No. 1, also for the first time. That both these goals have come so late in his career is a testament to his perseverance. And Rohan Bopanna is nothing if not persevering.

This current version of a Bopanna is an unlikely Grand Slam champion, and not just because of his age.

The grey beard and the slight belly bulge may be the most visual, but there are other factors that indicate Bopanna does not have the identikit of a conventional tennis player.

Here is a man who can’t do endurance training in the gym because he has absolutely no cartilage in his knees. A player who had reached only two men’s doubles Grand Slam final before this – and they were 10 years apart. Who had just one Major to his name, in mixed doubles, from five finals. Whose career best of world No 3 was first achieved way back in 2013. Who almost retired in 2019 after needing three painkillers a day to play.

But through the physical limitations and finals losses and, today, the pressure to win after reaching world No 1, Bopanna had what the best of athletes need above all the skills and fitness – perseverance, backed by discipline, commitment to fitness and emotional awareness. This combination is what makes Bopanna so good at his age, it’s what finally gave him the biggest achievement at 43.

The best example of this is how he stuck around the most difficult phase of his career in 2019 and 2021. With his knees all but gone, he was ready to call it quits. The pandemic-enforced break gave him a chance to focus on Iyengar yoga and once he was pain-free, he had a string of losses that made him reconsider playing.

“I still remember back in in Portugal… I had not won a match for the first four months, that’s when I told my wife and coach, ‘I don’t think I can go any further. I’ve been playing 20 years of tennis. I’ve never had this terrible start, not winning matches’,” he said in a press conference after his win.

“I think just expressing that relaxed me. I then said let’s just go and start enjoying what I’m doing, let’s persevere and see where I can push it, finish the season strong and then take it from there. That was the key.”

He hung in for the year and beyond, partnered with Ebden at the end of 2022 and the rest, is well, history.

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Since the start of 2023, Bopanna and Ebden have become one of the most consistent pairs on tours, reaching 9 finals and winning 3, qualifying for the year-end ATP Finals and now winning a first Grand Slam. All this while Bopanna raked in the ‘oldest-man-to’ records on the ATP Tour.

3 titles from 9 finals may not look like an encouraging stat, but what is perseverance if not putting yourself in the right position again and again, knowing that some day it will pay off. Even at the Australian Open, they were 0-5 down in the very first match they played, days after losing another final. But they persevered and went on to win the whole thing, making it look easier than it was.

His mental fortitude is what enabled the physical grind of doing the small things right, day in and day out, to keep his fading body fit. From committing to an ice bath every single day for recovery to investing in a physio to travel with throughout 2023 and becoming consistent with meditation and yoga, he did all he could do to being his physical capability on par with his mental belief.

Bopanna’s oft-repeated motto is something he learned from his wife Supriya, taking limitations and turning them into opportunities. He’s proven this with how he’s evolved on court.

He may have reduced mobility but he has the sharpest reactions at the net, fast hands pouncing on every chance to send the ball in the tiniest of spaces he can see. He may not be able to engage in long rallies but his deep, fiery groundstrokes can kill points and his serve – admirably one of the most improved weapons over the last year – can be a rocket when needed.

It’s all been possible due to his commitment to fitness and as he said in his shout out to coach Scott Davidoff and physio Rebecca Van Orshaegen after lifting the trophy, it’s been a tough journey.

A journey that now has reached its pinnacle.

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Bopanna’s is a universal story of overcoming odds in sport. But seen through the Iens of Indian tennis, it becomes even more special.

Bopanna is only the fourth Indian to become world No 1 and win a Grand Slam title. He’s the third Indian to win a men’s doubles title, the first since Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. This is India’s first Major title since 2017, when Bopanna won his first – the mixed doubles at French Open.

For a country starved of big-stage tennis success since the heydays of Lee-Hesh and Sania, Bopanna’s Slam-cum-No-1 heroics are both an inspiration and hope. That he’s doing it an age where most Indian athletes hang up their boots is a mark of perseverance that should be as much as inspiration as his trophies.

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