Huge challenge for warring players to deliver at Olympics
The build up to the Games has been far from ideal as the players were busy squabbling over who will pair with whom which by their own admission created a lot of bad blood among them.
But in individual capacity the three stalwarts – Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza – have produced some encouraging results in the past 12 months, hence they can go onto produce some magic on the court and get the country`s second Olympic medal in tennis.
Paes is the only tennis player from the country to have won a medal – a bronze – in Olympics when he achieved the coveted feat in the men`s singles at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Ironically, he became the central figure in one of the most bitter rows in Indian tennis – a drama that was played out for quite a few days before things eventually settled down.
In the process, a new friendship (Bhupathi-Rohan Bopanna) came to the fore, one already-soured (Paes-Bhupathi) became more bitter and a flourishing one (Bhupathi-Sania) got strained. It was the outcome of the selection controversy that Indian tennis witnessed or rather endured, a few days ahead of the Games.
Although India will be part of four events at the tennis competition, the medal chance is only in two – men`s doubles and mixed doubles and that`s why the players` chemistry with each other assumed significance.
The tried and tested combination of Paes-Bhupathi did not fetch a medal in their last four attempts at the Olympics and this time they will not be there as a pair.
Paes has been combined with the young Vishnu Vardhan, who is talented but lacks experience of playing at such a big stage. So they do not pose much of a threat to other teams in draw, which will be full of awe-inspiring stars such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Paes, who has made three Grand Slam finals this season and won one, will become the first Indian to feature in six Olympics. He will overtake shooters Randhir Singh and Karni Singh, with whom he is tied fifth right now. So, he has done well but not with the partners with whom he is going to compete with at Olympics.
Bhupathi had his wish granted to be paired with Rohan Bopanna and they now would be keen to prove that their fight to have each other on the same side of the court was not without merit.
They have results to back themselves as medal contenders too. Since joining hands at the start of the season, they have annexed one title and made the semifinals of five other tournaments, including three ATP Masters series events.
They have victories against fancied pairs of Rafael Nadal-Marcel Granollers, Mariusz Fyrstenberg-Marcin Matkowski and have also beaten the world number one combination of Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor.
However, they have not gone beyond the third round at the three Grand Slams so far this season. Still, Bhupathi and Bopanna can go the distance if they play to their potential in a draw, which will feature 32 teams.
Sania has been focussing on doubles in the last few months just to prepare for the Olympics but now that she will be playing with Paes and not her preferred partner Bhupathi, it remains to be seen how the two players gel.
Both are forehand players and Sania is not keen to play the backhand side of the court. She had done that in the 2010 Commonwealth Games while playing with Paes and the result was an early exit.
Ideally, Sania should have played with Bhupathi since the two have produced results — two Grand Slam titles and several other semifinal appearances on the tour.
Mixed doubles is back on the Olympic program for the first time since 1924 and a draw with 16 teams means that victory in three matches will fetch a bronze. She has also done well in women`s doubles, save the last three-four months, as she did not play with regular partner Elena Vesnina.
Again, she is playing the Olympics women`s doubles with Rushmi Chakravarthi, a partner with whom she has not played since the CWG 2010, where they had won a bronze.
Somdev Devvarman, who enthralled the Indian tennis fans with his doggedness in 2009 and 2010 before fading out in the following year due to injury, will make a comeback to competitive tennis straight at the Olympics.
A shoulder injury sidelined him for eight months and it will be a huge challenge for him to perform at this level. He has entered the men`s singles as a wild card entry that the AITA managed to get for him.
Somdev is a gold-medallist at the CWG and the Asian Games and if he manages to clear two rounds, it would be a good fillip for his career. Anything more than that would be a bonus. In the backdrop of a stormy build-up, it can only be hoped that the players are able to fully focus on the job at hand and make it count on the big stage.