THE WEEK Sportsroom with Rohan Bopanna: A peek into the journey of a modern Indian great

The event was presented by HSBC

62-Ayaz-Memon-and-Rohan-Bopanna Racket science: Ayaz Memon and Rohan Bopanna | Amey Mansabdar

Age no bar, cartilage no bar. Rohan Bopanna, at age 43―or level 43 as he likes to call it―became the oldest man to win a Grand Slam when he and partner Matthew Ebden won the Australian Open earlier this year. Not only was the feat impressive in itself, the fact that he did so with no cartilage in his knees made it an insane achievement.

There was a time in 2006 when, following a shoulder surgery, Bopanna wondered if he would ever compete again. Nearly two decades later, he is world No. 1 in men’s doubles and has his sights set on the Paris Olympics.

It was this journey of grit and persistence that Bopanna shared with THE WEEK’s Sports Consultant Ayaz Memon at the magazine’s Sportsroom event presented by HSBC at the bank’s India headquarters in Fort, Mumbai, on April 4.

As the stories swirled inside the colonial-era art deco building, the audience got a peek into not just Bopanna’s life, but also that of Indian tennis as a whole. The conversation―breezy and insightful―covered a lot of ground, including why there is a paucity of talent in Indian tennis currently, how Iyengar yoga and ice baths kept his body going, his love of coffee and exploring cities, the loneliness of travel, and how he came back from the dark days of his career.

As it turned out, he is proficient not only with racket in hand, but also on the mic. Sitting on stage in a light-blue jacket, wearing a gold locket with two crossed knives―a nod to his Coorgi roots―Bopanna talked about how he went from being a young singles player to a grizzled doubles veteran who is now like an uncle on the international circuit.

“Age never worried me,” he said. “We set our limitations ourselves. When you change limitations into opportunities, you have a better perspective.”

His lowest point, he recalled, was in 2021, when he did not win a match for five months. That is when he told his wife, Supriya, a psychologist, that he was thinking of quitting. He was not enjoying it anymore. She told him he could do it, but urged him not to do so when he was down. And that triggered something.

Bopanna talked candidly and at length about mental and physical toughness, but he also sprinkled in some amusing anecdotes. In 2008, for instance, he made a pact with his then physio Shayamal Vallabhjee that if he entered a Grand Slam quarterfinal, they would both shave their heads. It was a self-motivation tool. So, at Wimbledon 2010, when he lost in the quarterfinals, he headed to the locker room and straightaway went next door to the barbershop. After the deed was done, he walked past his family, and his mother did a double take. She had just seen her son, with a full head of hair, playing on court half an hour ago. “It tells you that you need to have a little bit of madness in you to become a champion,” noted Memon.

63-Jaswinder-Sodhi Jaswinder Sodhi, Head of Customers, Digital and Marketing, Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC India; Ranganath Ananth, Head of Distribution, Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC India; Bopanna; Memon; and Shubham Golash, Director and Regional Head (West), Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC India.

Talking of champions, Bopanna also weighed in on the GOAT debate, saying that while Roger Federer was his favourite, Novak Djokovic was the best athlete. As for Indians, he said he had seen a lot of improvement in Sumit Nagal in the past one year.

Bopanna did not shy away from some of the prickly questions Memon had. For instance, on the friction in the past between the Indian tennis federation and the players. “Any time the federation was involved in picking the team, we had an issue,” said Bopanna, evoking chuckles from the 50-odd invitees, some of them lifelong tennis fans and players. “When the federation was not involved, it was smooth sailing.”

Among those in attendance were THE WEEK’s Chief Associate Editor and Director Riyad Mathew, who talked about the importance of sport in life; those from the bank were: Jaswinder Sodhi, Head of Customers, Digital and Marketing, Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC India; Ranganath Ananth, Head of Distribution, Wealth and Personal Banking at HSBC India; Shubham Golash, Director and Regional Head (West), Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC India; Arkaprava Ray, Head, Marketing Strategy, Brand Partnerships, IP and Sponsorships, Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC India; and Sandeep Sethi, SVP and Branch Head, Fort Mumbai, HSBC India.

Bopanna went on to explain that in professional tennis, a player essentially does everything themselves, like entering tournaments and funding their careers, which includes paying for air fare, coaches and physios. But for events like the Davis Cup, Asian Games and the Olympics, the federation has to enter them. Also, when picking teams, the federation might not go with the pair that has been playing together for a long time. This is where the problem lies. “Doubles is like a love marriage,” he said, “and when it came to the Olympics and such events, it was an arranged marriage.”

Asked if he was going to have a go at tennis administration and what changes he would affect were he sports minister, Bopanna said, “I would love to be part of it.... We need to come together to make the sport work.” He added that the first step would be to broadcast matches of all Indians representing their country in tennis worldwide. In fact, before the event, Bopanna had told THE WEEK that he had in the past called up broadcasters to ask them whether they were going to show his matches.

Those days are now over; that he is firmly a star was evident by the rush at the end of the event to get a photo clicked with the ace.