Rio Olympics: Sania, Paes look to amend India’s poor record in Tennis
For the last twenty years, all tennis enthusiasts in India have been rooting for the sight of an Indian player standing on a podium at the Olympics.
Unfortunately, after Leander Paes brought back an individual bronze in singles at Atlanta 1996, no one carried the trend forward. Thus, India's overall unimpressive record at the Olympics is in sync with its poor haul in tennis.
However, this time around, with three established though squabbling players of the professional tennis circuit in its ranks, India hopes to bag at least a medal in this discipline at the Rio Olympics.
India's biggest contingent so far to the Olympics this year is raising hopes of the largest medals haul at the summer Games -- and tennis will naturally be keenly followed back home with expectations of podium finishes.
India will compete in three categories -- Leander Paes-Rohan Bopanna in the men's doubles, Sania Mirza-Prarthana Thombare in the women's doubles, and Bopanna-Sania in the mixed doubles.
India won six medals at the London Games in 2012, their best haul so far at the Olympics, but none in tennis.
Paes, India's grand old Olympics statesman, in his record seventh appearance, is still very much around and will be rubbing shoulders with a younger Bopanna in men's doubles.
The 43-year-old will dearly love to bow out of the international stage with another medal on his burgeoning trophy cabinet.
But he has long ceased to be a singles star on the professional circuit and Davis Cup that helped him win bronze at Atlanta.
He now needs help from Bopanna, currently India's best ranked men's doubles player on the pro circuit at No.15, for a glittering swansong after failing with Ramesh Krishnan in 1992 and Mahesh Bhupathi in 2004 in bronze medal matches.
But Paes-Bopanna's worries are more for each other than their opponents. Their mutual dislike is well documented, Bopanna even going to the extent of preferring to partner lower-ranked Saketh Myneni instead of Paes.
The All India Tennis Association (AITA) intervention ensured a timely avoidance of another full blown war ala London 2012 that ruined medal hopes.
Mirza also poured salt to injury by stating in her recently-released autobiography that she was used as a pawn by AITA in the Paes-Bhupathi-Bopanna saga.
Seasoned campaigners like Paes, Bopanna are expected to keep their personal egos and petty squabbles aside to be at their premium for the country. But it is easier said than done.
They also lack match practice though they played together in the Davis Cup tie against South Korea in July in Chandigarh.
Paes has been a dwindling force in men's doubles for over a year, dropping out of the top 50 rankings that pegged India's doubles team at the 15th position.
They will face Poland's Marcin Matkowski and Lukas Kubot in the first round on Saturday.
Sania's pairing with Bopanna offers more hope. They are known to enjoy friendly relations on and off the court and their contrasting styles of play could be also be an advantage.
In the women's doubles, the inexperienced Sania-Prarthana play against China's Peng Shuai and Shuai Zhang in the first round.
(With IANS inputs)