When Rohan Bopanna first broke through as a player of note in the late 1990s-early 2000s, his all-powerful game was sprinkled with promise. Nicknamed “Bofors” for two reasons — his big torpedo-like first serve and the topicality of the word at the point in news cycles — Bopanna was going to be the next big thing.
Already a late bloomer, the teenager then, like many other young Indian players, was probably influenced by the success of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, who were, at that point, winning doubles titles by the dozens, including Grand Slams. Bopanna, at six-feet, four-inches in height and strong, made for an excellent doubles player. What was unknown then was that more than two decades later, he would still be pounding them in effectively.
On Sunday, the unseeded Bopanna and Australia player the South African Matthew Ebden won the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, upsetting top seeds Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski 6-3 2-6 10-8. In the process, the 43-year-old Bopanna became the oldest ever ATP-Masters 1000 champion.
The newly crowned champion wears his age as an honorary badge now, with the greying beard trimmed neatly, the thinning hair and the younger partners.
Bopanna and Ebden had also just won the ATP 250 in Doha in February, 10-6 in the third set in the final.
In January, Bopanna and Sania Mirza reached the final of the Australian Open mixed doubles — Mirza’s last match at a Grand Slam before she retired. Clearly, 2023 is one of those resurgent years for Bopanna.
“Truly special. It’s called Tennis Paradise for a reason,” the ATP website reported the Indian as saying after his fifth Masters 1000 trophy and first in Indian Wells on Sunday. “I’ve been, over the years, coming here and seeing all these guys win for so many years. I’m really happy that Matt and I were able to do this and get this title here.”
Bopanna’s longevity is as much a tribute to his fitness as it is to his love for the game. It’s not easy to do a repetitive act over three decades unless it gives joy. Just before the pandemic, Bopanna suffered pains in his legs, but the lockdown forced him to rest, revaluate and come back pain-free. “Years and years of playing at the high level gives you an understanding of situations,” he told Scroll. “You understand your strengths and then you play with it.”
Besides the two men’s doubles titles he has already won this year, Bopanna also won three titles last year, in Tel Aviv with Matwe Middlekoop, Pune and Adelaide with Ramkumar Ramanathan. Besides, he has a Grand Slam in mixed doubles, the 2017 French Open in Roland Garros with Canadian Gabriela Dabrowski.
“Its special when you get any record. Biggest feeling for me is (to be) able to pursue my tennis, keep it going and still believe I could win big tournaments. I am constantly finding ways to figure how to improve. I texted Daniel Nestor that I am sorry I broke his record,” Bopanna said, laughing, at the Indian Wells post-match conference. Bopanna broke former partner Nestor’s record to become the oldest champion at this level.
Ebden and Bopanna started playing together — after their partners “dumped them”, joked Bopanna — earlier this year but had disappointing results in the beginning. They lost early in an ATP 250 in Adelaide and the Australian Open before making it to the final at Rotterdam in February. Their first title came two weeks later in Doha.
Coached by Scott Davidoff, the former doubles World No. 3, whose family owns a coffee plantation in Coorg, told Reuters that coffee was the secret of his success. “It’s the Indian coffee that I keep having when travelling. That’s the secret. The biggest thing is to make sure you recover well after matches and that’s really helped me,” Bopanna told the news agency.
Whether it was the brew or his single-minded focus that helped beat ageist detractors, Bopanna shows no sign of stopping — or slowing down.
“The only person to be representing India (here) and I am proud of that,” Bopanna added at Indian Wells. “It’s nice to see the Indian flag always. I got a lot of messages — people are inspired that I am able to do it. Age is not a number at this stage and that’s the biggest win, that I am able to put a smile on somebody’s face.”