Asian Games 2018: Bopanna-Sharan's gold highlights India's tennis campaign; Ankita Raina, Prajnesh Gunneswaran impress

There is nothing like the sheen of gold to cover up any manner of imperfections. Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan brought that all-important gold medal on Friday, when the country’s challenge in tennis came to an end at the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang.

Having suffered a shoulder injury at Wimbledon, Bopanna had waited till the last minute to take a call on participation. But once he decided to enter, the tall Indian stood head and shoulders above the field. The senior of the two, the 38-year-old Bopanna guided the team out of tough spots in the earlier rounds and hit the high notes in the final.

Rohan Bopanna (left) and Divij Sharan won men's doubles gold at the ongoing Asian Games. AFP

Rohan Bopanna (left) and Divij Sharan won men's doubles gold at the ongoing Asian Games. AFP

In the title round, Bopanna-Sharan were up against Kazakhstan’s hard-hitting duo of Aleksander Bublik and Denis Yevseyev, who had earlier in the tournament bullied past opponents. Bublik, who had reached a career high of 95 in September last year, and his partner are mainly singles players and even though they had all the power shots, they just couldn’t figure out the geometry of a doubles court. Bopanna and Sharan, India’s top two doubles players, had all the weapons, and more importantly, the guile, to overcome their crash-bang opponents. They beat Bublik- Yevseyev 6-3, 6-4 in 52 minutes to win India another gold medal in the men’s doubles event.

Historically, it has been India’s best event in tennis at the Asian Games. The country had won four gold medals in men’s doubles in the last six editions. And with India fielding a strong pair of Bopanna and Sharan, it was once again their best bet. Even though the two were the most experienced doubles players in a field made up largely of scratch pairs, Bopanna and Sharan rarely play together. More importantly, neither of them had ever played an Asiad final. Bopanna had not participated in the Asian Games the last two editions while Sharan and Yuki Bhambri had settled for bronze at 2014 Incheon.

Their glee at having completed the job, and delivered on the expectations, was hard to miss as they climbed the podium to receive their medals. The victory also ensured that doubles controversy didn’t rear its ugly head again. With the country brimming with doubles talent, none of whom play together on the pro tour, it has become customary to bicker over partners. And Leander Paes had threatened to disturb the uneasy truce when he pulled out of the competition on the eve of the draw citing the lack of a specialist doubles partner.

The Indian contingent, which had already assembled in Palembang by then, though fortunately moved on without much drama.

Going by the numbers, India’s performance at the 2018 Asian Games hasn’t been as rewarding. Tennis had brought India five medals in the last two editions, but was stopped at three in Indonesia. Bopanna couldn’t quite replicate his form in the mixed doubles. Seeded fourth, Bopanna and Ankita Raina bowed out in the quarter-finals of the event.

Another disappointment was Ramkumar Ramanathan’s early exit. With Yuki Bhambri deciding to skip the Asian Games and instead prepare for the US Open, which begins on Monday, Ramkumar was India’s No 1 singles player. A lot was also expected of the 23-year-old from Chennai since he had, only last month, made it to the finals of an ATP tournament in Newport. The talented, but temperamental, Ramkumar has, however, struggled for consistency.

Most big names of Asian tennis, like Kei Nishikori and Hyeon Chung, had opted out, and Ramkumar was seeded second in the 64-player field. But he failed to cash in on the opportunity, going down to Uzbekistan’s Jurabek Karimov in the third round, despite winning the first set. The makeshift pair of Ramkumar and Sumit Nagal didn’t fare too well either, losing in the quarterfinals to Bublik-Yevseyev.

India’s singles challenge, however, was brought to life by Ankita Raina and Prajnesh Gunneswaran’s daring runs to bronze.

In Sania Mirza’s absence, the onus was on India’s top-ranked player Raina. And the petite 25-year-old from Ahmadabad squared up her shoulders for the challenge, taking on the load of three events in the sapping heat of Palembang. And she punched well above her weight in the women’s singles, making it all the way to the semi-finals. Raina had not dropped a set in her first three matches and gave top-seed Shuai Zhang a fright in the last-four clash, before going down 6-4, 7-6(6) on Thursday. She had played three matches the previous day but never backed down from the fight.

“I came here to win gold,” said Raina. “It was a tough match and I could have won. She is obviously an experienced player but I thought I could beat her.” In a game of tiny margins, Raina was beaten by a few inches in the second set tie-breaker.

Like Raina, Prajnesh’s career has been on the upturn in the past few months. Ever since he won the crucial fifth rubber for India in the Davis Cup clash against China in April, the southpaw is surging with confidence. He won a $150,000 Challenger event in China and reached a career high of 152 in June this year.

There was a time when he lost five years to injury and the 28-year-old seems determined to catch up. Playing his maiden Asian Games, Prajnesh took the hard road to a bronze finish. The 6'2" player was drawn into gruelling battles by Vietnam’s Lý Hoàng Nam (6-3, 5-7, 6-4) in the third round and then by Korea's Kwon Soon-woo in the quarters. There was a point in the last-eight clash when the Indian seemed unable to continue. A rain break threw him a lifeline, which Prajnesh barely hung on to. He saved two match points to edge to a 6-7(2 ), 6-4, 7-6 (8) win in almost four hours. In the semi-final though, the seasoned Denis Istomin proved too strong to crack.
Both, Prajnesh and Raina, have been grinding enough on the pro tour to not grab, or appreciate, an opportunity when they got one. Their heart-warming success stories may go some way in making up for a below-par medal haul.

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Updated Date: Aug 25, 2018 11:04 AM

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