Interview with Rohan Bopanna

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By – Vishnu Reddy, 9th June, 2018 [Key inputs from Vandana, Rahul Bhutani, Udit]

Rohan Bopanna is one player in Indian Tennis that does not need any introduction. We had an opportunity to speak to Rohan after he had one of India’s biggest wins this year – win over the World No.1 team in R3 of the French Open 2018.

In this interview, Rohan gives a peek into the reasons behind the clay court success, his biggest singles wins – vs Mardy Fish at Newport, vs Mello in Davis Cup playoffs, partnership with Aisam, lonely life of a pro on the tour and his two new initiatives – Coffee blend and his goals for Tennis in India via the Tennis Academy.

You have been having a great run on Clay and Roland Garros over the last couple of years. What is driving this clay season success?

I have been adapting my style of play a lot over the last 2-3 years. I have understood how to use my strengths according to the surface. Unfortunately in India, we do not have this kind of clay, so it took me a lot of time to get used to it. Additionally, playing with a lot of partners who are very established on clay, also helps. Understanding how to move, when to slide all contribute to it.

It still takes me time. When I first go to Monte Carlo, I have to go 5 days before to get used to the surface. By the time we come to the Roland Garros, I would have played numerous matches on clay, including big events. This helps me get confident in my style of play and I now look at clay as one of my stronger surfaces.

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Views on the 3rd round upset of the No.1 seeds. You had a break of serve in the second set but had given it back.

Playing the No.1 ranked team in the world is always a big challenge. At this level, irrespective of whether you have the lead or not, you still have to focus on finishing the job. Sometimes you have to give credit to the opponent as well, they came up with big returns to get the break back. Luckily we focused on our service games and especially the last two service games, we held quite comfortably which boosted our confidence going into the tie-break.

In the tie-break we dominated from the beginning and I would say, that was our best tie-break of the year. We played quite a few this year, some we won and lost more unfortunately. However, in this tie-break, we played solid and committed Tennis which makes the difference when you play the best in the business.

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You were the mixed doubles defending champion but ended up losing in the 1st round. What do you think went wrong?

Mixed is a bit similar to the Tour event with no ad-scoring and super tie-break – it is a matter of one point here and there. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. Peers and Zhang were too good and they didn’t give us much of a chance to come back after the first set loss, so credit goes to them.

You have been playing with Edu since the beginning of the year. The start of the year hasn’t been great but you seem to be picking up momentum now. How do you view the season so far?

It takes time to adapt with a new partner. Sometimes it clicks right off the block. If I compare from last year to the current year, this is the first time, I have a fixed partner with whom I can train and practice and work on each other’s game. It took us a while to understand and adapt to each other’s game. We were not sure whether he was better on the ad side and me on the deuce side and vice-versa – so it took us to figure out all these aspects.

Overall if you play a few tournaments with close matches, whether you win or lose, it makes a big difference, tend to understand the go-to points for each player and build on it.

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Moving on, you were born and brought up in Coorg. Tell us a bit about your growing years. How did you get into tennis?

It is difficult to sum up the journey in few sentences. By the age of 10, I started Tennis. There was a tennis court beside my place and my parents took me there. It started there and continued with my love for the sport. Even now, there are just two Tennis courts there. There is not much facility there for being a professional athlete.

When I look back sometimes, I don’t know how it was even possible. At that point of time, you don’t know what is possible. You just like the sport and keep going. Credit to my family as they are the ones who pushed me all the way. Both my parents sacrificed a lot and helped me believe in my tennis.

As a Junior, my record wasn’t great. I would lose quite often and I was what someone would say a journeyman. Playing in week-in and week-out but not getting many results. Thats where I would give credit to my parents as they let me continue to play tennis as they knew how much I enjoyed playing the sport. That makes a big different.

My dad would say that irrespective of whether tomorrow I become a doctor or an engineer, it is similar. One day, I could say I am done with it and move on. This is where the encouragement they have given me throughout my career is huge.

When I look back and remember these memories, it helps me to play at a higher level I think.

You qualified for Newport in 2008, beat the top seed Mardy Fish there. Lost to fellow Indian Prakash Amritraj in the quarters. Any memories of the great run?

The way I played back then was lot of serve and volley. Newport was grass courts and it was very difficult to stay back. Beating Mardy Fish was one of my huge victories. It is a wonderful tourney over there. Prakash liked playing there and I believe reached the finals that year. He is also somebody who loved that surface. Unfortunately, we had to play each other in the quarters. Otherwise, it was a good opportunity to go further.

Grass court season is short but I love to play as much as I can in that season.

You’ve played Roger on grass in Halle, won a set against Fernando Gonzalez in Malaysia. A lot of flashy results. Where do you think the consistency was lacking?

Like I said before, the system in India is not there to have that kind of fitness and training even though the game was there. The movement wasn’t there, especially to sustain in singles at the higher level.

I learnt this only after I was around 23/24 which is very late. This was after coming onto the circuit, knowing what kind of food to eat, what kind of training to do. The right kind of tennis specific exercises and drills which is really important for somebody to be a pro tennis player. Only when I was 23/24 that I started seeing and learning all this – that is one of the reasons, I am still playing at a higher level, even if it is doubles. So it’s only then, that my training started, I mean the right kind of training.

In India, we need to have a good structural system in place, which we do not have right now. We need to have 20 events – challengers and futures. As I say, if we have one challenger organized by each association, that its is a huge platform for Indian Tennis to grow. I think it is still do-able. Lot of corporate sponsors do come out and if we have events like that, lot of Indian players will start coming out.

Right now, it is very expensive to travel. Tennis is an expensive sport and it is lonely.  When you are traveling week-in and week-out by yourself, it is not easy. Having a team around you like the coach and fitness trainer who are constantly at you, that would have helped me.

As I said, I had only two courts in Coorg and I left that place at the age of 14/15. At that age, people are already playing at a very high level. So it was very tough to compete at the elite international stage. I had the game but did not have the moment. That made the difference for me I feel.

Your win over 75th ranked Ricardo Melo from Brazil in the 2010 Davis Cup World Group Playoff in Chennai in the fifth rubber is fondly remembered. Any memories from the tie?

Playing for India in the Davis Cup is always special. Winning that fifth match. Even when am thinking about it, I can still literally feel the goosebumps. It was 100% a special moment for me as I had lost a few close 5-setters in the past.

Coming from 0-2 down for Mahesh/Leander to win the doubles tie and then Somdev to win the reverse singles, then me finishing the fifth match. It was a beautiful moment.

I am very happy that even now in China, we are 0-2 down and to come back and win. For Prajnesh to win that last match, it is definitely a big feeling.

With Brazil, it was a world group play-off, so taking us back into the world group after a long time. Those are moments which definitely stay with you, throughout your lifetime.

(Interviewer interrupts and calls out that as the moment that stuck for him with tennis)

Nice, yes, those are the moments that really stay-on. I remember Ramkumar mentioning that he was there too to watch the match. That’s why a lot of these matches that we have, even this win against No.1 seeds, I hope they showed it in India. That is what is going to make the difference. Irrespective of whether it is in singles or doubles, an Indian watching another Indian play is all you need for that 1% of inspiration.

That’s why I keep emphasizing that they need to telecast these matches more. I am down here giving my 100% percent, who knows, it might inspire some kid back in India. Watching your own country player playing makes a big difference than watching a player whom you never met or connected with.

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Photo credit: Outlook India

Your best result was with Aisam and even though you reunited with him and the partnership wasn’t as successful, you still have the best Grand Slam result with him till date. Have you ever thought or talked with him of reuniting down the line as you both seem to have changed many partners in the last few years.

I would never say it is not a possibility. Both of us had a tremendous season back then and we broke through with the quarters in Wimbledon and then the finals at the US Open.

Then in 2014, we did give it a shot again and it didn’t really work out for us. However, who knows, in the future we may get back. Right now, both of us are playing the same side of the court and so there are also a few changes involved. However, that is not a big concern as both of us are comfortable switching, so will keep it open and we never know.

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Photo credit: The Tribune

Can you share a bit more detail on your support staff and the impact they have had on your journey.

Scott has been someone who has been there with me for lot of years now. I don’t see them as support staff but instead they’ve become a part of the family now. Traveling week-in and week-out, it makes a big difference. They see both the low and the high points and they are part of everything. They are the ones who prepare and help you get ready for the big tournaments.

My wife is a psychologist. I don’t work with her but indirectly I am sure it does. She has seen the game so much now that she has traveled with me. That makes a big difference. Her perspective, the way she communicates with me or Scott or Gaurang – it is very much part of one team and one family. It has to be together as otherwise, Tennis is such a lonely sport.

To have these guys around makes a big difference. I remember last year in Vienna – my coach and trainer had taken the week off. My wife was there. I was sitting there and telling her that we are in the final and there is nobody really there to celebrate the occasion with. Or we win the tournament, we are outside India, sitting here – it is a very big moment. As a tennis player, yes, you’ve won this event but there is nothing around and nobody to share the joy with.

Those kind of moments makes you feel how important it is to have a team around you to enjoy and relive those moments. It makes a big difference.

Like you said, the Davis Cup in India, made a huge difference. Right now, if I was playing in Vienna, you wouldn’t have remembered it as you wouldn’t have been there to experience that moment. I feel that makes a difference if the kids/people see it – whether you win or lose.

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You recently launched your new coffee brand in association with Flying Squirrel. How has the journey been so far? It is already available for order via Amazon. Any further expansion plans?

Coffee is a big part of my life before my tennis. It has been part of my family and I have grown in the coffee plantations. Flying Squirrel was started by a family friend and from Coorg as well. Ofcourse Coffee is very very big in Coorg. So I decided to tie-up with Flying Squirrel and we came up with Rohan Bopanna Master Blend from our estate.

We launched the blend in December and we had a wonderful experience so far. I sat down with my parents and said why not. I feel Coorg coffee is so wonderful and everybody should try it, even across the world. I have made lot of players try it and they love it. Every week I get new orders from the players themselves which is great as that means people are enjoying the coffee.

Yes, we are now available on Amazon. Right now, it is in India but of course I want to expand it to different parts of the globe. I feel Coorg coffee has great potential and a great way to expand it world wide.

All the people who work so hard for their livelihood and grow such good coffee, it should be shared all over the world. I know there are few people who are already doing it but I still think we can get the Coorg coffee going places. That’s why I tied up Flying Squirrel to do it together and expand the coffee brand out there.

Coffee is the second most popular drink out there after water, so why not. Lot of players love it and drink it. This is very different from what I do usually which is nice.

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Photo Credits: Rohan Bopanna

You recently launched your own tennis academy in Yelahanka, Bangalore. Tell us a bit about the facilities. How can the kids/parents in Bangalore best leverage them?

The first center was started in Yelahanka, Bangalore. It has 4 clay-courts. It is now our center for all our junior programs. 2 coaches are there full-time, fully focused on the junior development program. I believe that is the key to sustain. To work from the mini-tennis and work your way up. We also have this program in few schools.

When I started, the concept of mini-tennis wasn’t there. It is great now for the kids technique and for communication, they enjoy it a lot better now. The different sizes of the tennis balls as well, makes it easier for the kids to connect.

Then at Cubbon park, KSLTA – we use the 4 hard-courts for the advanced tennis program. We have about 20-25 kids there. I have couple of coaches from Serbia put up there. Everything I am doing is on my own. I believe that it’s not just the kids but also the coaches who need to keep up with the advancements happening in the world of tennis. I believe if everyone of us works together then only Tennis can grow. If we try to do it differently, then it will be tough. I really want to do my bit to have Tennis grow and I feel there is a big potential around it and hopefully I am on the right track.

The passion is there to give back to these guys. Whatever I have learnt over my playing career so far, it’s important that I give it back and see how it goes.
Photo credit: RBTA

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