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India's Rio 2016 Dreams: After Ignoring Leander Paes, Can Sania Mirza-Rohan Bopanna Deliver in Mixed Doubles?

Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna.  (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

The mixed-doubles pair is being christened as the dream team by many, largely due to the fact that they are in form, happy playing with each other and clinched a Rio berth on the weight of their rankings.

New Delhi: The precursor to London 2012 was pretty ugly for Indian tennis. Players fighting with each other over who partners who showed the country in very poor light and all hopes of a medal were almost laughed off in the middle of a public fall-out.

The All India Tennis Federation (AITA), which looked clueless in handling ego clashes ahead of London, was better prepared for Rio 2016. As soon as Rohan Bopanna announced he will partner Saketh Mynneni in men's doubles, AITA was quick to nip any chance of a controversy in its bud and almost issued an order that it will be Bopanna and Leander Paes.

In a somewhat similar situation, Sania was forced to team up with Paes for the mixed doubles event in London four years ago; but this time around the world No. 1 women's doubles player had the liberty to throw her weight around and inform AITA of her partner of choice in mixed doubles.

Sania, the winner of three mixed doubles Grand Slams (six overall), chose Bopanna, who had reached as high as No. 3 in 2013 doubles rankings. The decision made a lot of sense for various reasons and immediately found favour with the federation and India's tennis pundits, who were convinced that in the mixed doubles pair of Sania-Bopanna lay India's most realistic chance of a tennis medal.

Incidentally, though, London 2012 was India's best show in mixed doubles as Sania and Paes made it to the quarter-finals. Also interesting is the fact that Leander recently won the mixed doubles French Open title. So he may be the 55th-ranked doubles player currently, but rankings not always tell the story.

However, if you look at the technicalities as explained by AITA, the combined ranking for Leander and Sania was 47 on the cut-off date of June 6, which would have made it impossible for them to enter the mixed doubles draw in Rio. So while Sania had made her choice very clear, AITA adhering to it was also based on the best practice to get India into the draw.

The combined ranking for Sania and Bopanna was No. 11 on the cut-off date. So on those grounds, the decision for the 16-team event was pretty unanimous.

Other than the aforementioned men's and mixed doubles pairs, India will also be presenting a challenge in the women's doubles where Sania will play with the young Prarthana Thombare.

The Indian tennis players have a history of making their likes and dislikes for each other very evident. It, in a way, sends an alert to Indian fans as to which event they should follow and which they can safely skip.

If you look at the situation, both Bopanna and Sania expressed their reservations over teaming up with Leander. In such a scenario, it's difficult to expect any sort of camaraderie or chemistry when Bopanna and Paes take to the courts in Rio. And Sania's partner in women's doubles, Prarathana, is too inexperienced to be able to forge a formidable challenge on her Olympic debut.

That leaves the 'happy' mixed doubles team of Sania and Bopanna as India's only practical hope for a medal in Brazil. However, the overall picture is very cruel on the 18-time Grand Slam winner Paes, who will be making his record seventh appearance at the Games - the most by any Indian ever across sports. He, though, is yet to arrive in Rio.

Not to forget, Paes is India's only Olympic medal winner (men's singles bronze at Atlanta 1996) in tennis. So it's pretty disheartening to see a player of his stature getting a cold shoulder from his much younger compatriots.

The Sania-Bopanna Hope

It's being christened as the dream team by many, largely due to the fact that they are in form, happy playing with each other and clinched a Rio berth on the weight of their doubles rankings in the top 10 on June 6. Currently, Sania is No. 1 and Bopanna No. 15.

I feel that mixed doubles is where our hopes truly lie in," Sania had said before leaving for Rio.

Sania will be playing in her third Olympics and has the doubles experience of 37 titles, which include six Grand Slam trophies. With medals at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games also in her kitty, Bopanna - playing his second Olympics - couldn't have had a better partner to launch a serious medal challenge in Rio.

Talking about challenge, the Indians will not have to stand up against the Swiss pair of Roger Federer and Martina Hingis, since the former exited the Games due to injury. The pull-out of Stanislas Wawrinka and the American Bryan Brothers further improves the chances of Indian pair. But then there are Spaniards Rafael Nadal and Garbine Muguruza, apart from the US team featuring Serena Williams.

“There are top mixed doubles players from the world coming to compete. There will be world’s top 10 players. It will surely be a challenging event, but at the end of the day, mixed doubles is the best bet we have in tennis to win a medal,” the 29-year-old Sania had said a few days back.

A lot, however, will also depend on which side of the 16-team draw India finds a place in.