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Explained: Why Bopanna preferred Balaji over India's No. 2 Bhambri for Paris Olympics

Rohan Bopanna's choice of Sriram Balaji has become a new talking point in Indian tennis as the new Indian pair heads to the Paris Olympics.

Explained: Why Bopanna preferred Balaji over Indias No. 2 Bhambri for Paris Olympics
Rohan Bopanna and Sriram Balaji will play two ATP tournaments ahead of the Paris Olympics. (File Photo)

Dheepan Brunner M

Updated: 14 Jun 2024 12:42 PM GMT

Rohan Bopanna, the ace Indian tennis player, is looking to end his illustrious career on a high note by partnering with Sriram Balaji for the upcoming Paris Olympics, scheduled for July 26-August 11.

The 44-year-old Indian is confident of winning a medal at the Olympics due to his recent successes with his Australian partner Mathew Ebden, with whom he achieved his career-best ranking of World No. 1 in men’s doubles, making him the oldest player to achieve the feat.

This will be Bopanna's third Olympics. Earlier, he competed in the London 2012 and Rio 2016, where he and his partner Sania Mirza missed out on a bronze medal as they came fourth.

He did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The World No. 4 has automatically qualified for Paris since the top 10 in doubles are eligible for automatic qualification to the Olympics.

The quota system for the Paris Olympics also specifically states that the top 10 players must have a partner ranked inside the top 300 in the doubles rankings.

Rohan Bopanna chose World No. 67 Sriram Balaji as his partner despite India having a second-ranked doubles player in Yuki Bhambri, who holds a higher ATP ranking at World No. 54.

This decision raises questions about the factors and considerations that led Bopanna to prefer Balaji over Bhambri for the Paris Olympics.

Let’s delve into the rationale behind Bopanna’s decision by comparing the playing styles of Bhambri and Balaji, and exploring what clicked for Balaji to make his Olympic debut as Bopanna's partner.

Why Balaji over Bhambri

While both Bhambri and Balaji are brilliant in their own ways, there may be nuances in their styles of play that prompted Bopanna to pick Balaji over Bhambri to suit his own style.

Strong Baseline Play

Balaji is known for his strong baseline play and consistency at the back of the court, which has contributed to his and his partner's successes at the international level.

Most recently, Balaji and his partner, Reyes-Varela of Mexico, faced off against Bopanna and Ebden in the third round of the French Open. The Balaji-Reyes-Varela pair were sublime and often appeared to be in the driver's seat to win the match.

However, the Bopanna and Ebden duo emerged victorious. Despite the loss, Balaji showcased consistency in his baseline play, which complements Bopanna’s superior net skills and quick reflexes.

Bhambri is equally brilliant when it comes to baseline play. However, he has achieved more success in singles than in doubles due to his extensive singles career.

Given the nuanced gameplay and the necessity of having an engaging partner who understands the situation in doubles, Bhambri’s expertise in baseline play is more aligned with singles than doubles, which could potentially pose challenges for Bopanna as he seeks a medal at the twilight of his career.

Agility on the court

Having played against him at the recently concluded French Open, Bopanna would have noticed Balaji’s agility in close quarters, particularly on the clay courts of Roland Garros, the venue for the Paris Olympics tennis.

This observation must have influenced Bopanna's decision. Balaji is very effective in returning opponents' shots by swiftly moving around the court, reacting, and retrieving the ball.

Bhambri’s agility cannot be questioned either, as he has demonstrated his agility by being the number 2 ranked doubles tennis player in India. However, the synchronization of his agility with his partner's agility is crucial for achieving a better balance in the game. This synchronization is especially essential in a doubles setup, given Bhambri's long and illustrious singles career rather than doubles, of which Balaji is better placed due to his experience in doubles.

Recent outings

Bopanna and Bhambri had paired up earlier; they had not experienced much success together. They succumbed to a shocking defeat against lower-ranked Uzbek opponents at the 2023 Asian Games held in Hangzhou, China.

Indian coach Zeeshan Ali stated that Bopanna did not get the required support from Bhambri during the match. This would have undoubtedly been a crucial point for Bopanna in not considering Bhambri as his partner for the Olympics.

Although Balaji and Bopanna have not teamed up in recent years, they experienced success together when they entered the Davis Cup playoff in March 2017. This win would likely be on their minds as they aim to do well in the Paris Olympics, drawing motivation from their past achievement.

Disrupting the status quo

Every player heading to the Olympics would want to have a higher-ranked player on his or her side. While Balaji may not not outrank Bhambri in doubles, he certainly brings a wealth of experience, and agility in his playing style, past successes, and personal dynamics with his partner.

These attributes must have convinced Bopanna to take a chance on selecting the 34-year-old as his partner, disrupting the status quo of Indian tennis that traditionally favours higher-ranked players for such marquee events.

However, it remains to be seen whether Bopanna and Balaji pair would return home with a medal potentially marking a milestone since Leander Paes' bronze medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

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