Rohan Bopanna at 'level 43', a journey beyond physical logic
When we tend to slow down, try to substitute for physical decline by using experience and tricks to the wrist and play more friendlies than highly intense and heart-throbbing matches, Bopanna, an Indian man of tenacity, attained a dual feat at the Australian Open.
At 43, Rohan Bopanna, a few weeks shy of his 44th birthday, has laid his hands on his first men's doubles Grand Slam title; he became the oldest player to do so in the Open Era.
"Age is only a number" is one of the most familiar catchphrases in sports. It comes into use when the athletes age. Young athletes do not need such consolation.
It is easier to find young champions. Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras was ten years old when he became the youngest Olympian to take part in the 1896 Games. He won a bronze medal. In the Tokyo Olympics, in 2021, Syrian Han Zaza became the youngest of this century at 12 to participate in the Games.
But some athletes improved their longevity to a wondrous level. Australian equestrian Mary Hanna, a six-time Olympian, contested even at the age of 66.
In tennis, we have seen Roger Federer, unarguably the most elegant of all players on the court, playing his final competitive match at the age of 41, and winning his last Grand Slam at the age of 36.
When we tend to slow down and try to substitute for physical decline by using experience and tricks to the wrist and playing more friendly than highly intense and heart-throbbing matches, Bopanna, an Indian man of tenacity, defied all logic pertinent to physique by attaining a dual feat.
On Wednesday, with his quarterfinal win at the Australian Open, Bopanna rose to the world no. 1 spot in the ATP doubles rankings, becoming the oldest man to hold the coveted position. And in a span of three days, the world would see Bopanna bursting into a roaring celebration at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena claiming his career's maiden men's doubles Grand Slam title.
In his straight-set win, the crucial break came in the 11th game of the second set, in which Bopanna's backhand return flew past Simone Bolelli at the net and Andrea Vavassori double-faulted. With Bopanna's 36-year-old Australian partner Matthew Ebden serving out the match, the Indian's hunger for holding aloft a men’s doubles Grand Slam was finally consummated.
Bopanna lying back on the court holding his head in relief, chest bumping with Ebden, and his double fist pump piercing through the hollowed arena were some of the iconic photo frame moments for Indian tennis, dotted by sporadic success stories.
'I'm at level 43'
“I say I am at level 43, not age 43," Bopanna would vouch holding his maiden men's doubles Grand Slam title dearly on the court.
This is particularly fascinating when the average retirement age of Olympic athletes rose from 26 to 28 in modern times, courtesy of technological advancement, athleticism, evolving game style, and their exposure to diet modifications at different stages. Some studies also stated that modern athletes attain their peak form at the age of 40 - putting experience over raw physical attributions.
Twice Bopanna came close to winning a Slam before, at the US Open in 2010 and 2023 with two different partners, but luck was not in his favour.
Bopanna did taste the success of a Grand Slam win in 2017 when he won the French Open mixed doubles title by pairing up with Gabriela Dabrowski, but a title in men's doubles, which he has always considered his forte, was not coming easily.
Four years ago, Bopanna hit the lowest point of his fitness level when a string of injuries eliminated the cartilage in both his knees as he entered his forties. But he would fight back by modifying his fitness regimen.
Bopanna, however, was frustrated by the lack of wins. He naturally encountered the most unwanted question an athlete has to deal with: Has it been worth it? Is all the training, leading a repetitious life, staying away from family, travelling tirelessly and putting the body through rigours of physical exercise worth it if success is scarce?
"I know a couple of years ago I sent her a video message and said ‘I am gonna call it a day.’ Because I was not winning matches at all. I went five months without winning a match. I thought that was going to be the end of my journey," Bopanna revealed holding the mic.
"Perseverance inside me just kept me going. I really changed so many things and found a wonderful partner," he added, crediting his wife, Supriya Annaiah, with whom he tied the knot in 2012.
Bopanna would resuscitate his men's doubles career in 2023 when he forged a new partnership with Matthew Ebden, previously the Wimbledon champion. They reached four Masters 1000 finals, winning the title at Indian Wells and reaching the US Open final.
Due to their consistency, Bopanna and Ebden rose through the rankings and qualified for the year-end ATP finals, where the Indian scripted another history when he became the oldest player to win a match at the prestigious ATP Finals. Although Bopanna and Ebden went down in the summit clash, they remained firm and grew in confidence. It finally paid off at the Australian Open.
For Bopanna, now, age is just a level.