'Our friendship remains': India's Bopanna on playing against Pakistan's Aisam in Dubai

10 years after winning the Dubai doubles title together, Indian star Bopanna will be facing his old partner from Pakistan


Rituraj Borkakoty

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India's Rohan Bopanna and his former doubles partner from Pakistan, Aisam-ul Qureshi. — Photos by Rituraj Borkakoty
India's Rohan Bopanna and his former doubles partner from Pakistan, Aisam-ul Qureshi. — Photos by Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Mon 26 Feb 2024, 6:37 PM

Last updated: Mon 26 Feb 2024, 8:06 PM

Fresh from his soul-stirring triumph at the Australian Open last month when he became the oldest Grand Slam winner in the Open era, India’s doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna is back in Dubai.

It's a city that brings back a lot of happy memories for the 43-year-old Bopanna, who is also the oldest world number one in doubles.

The affable Indian won back-to-back doubles titles at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in 2014 and 2015, the first of which came with Aisam-ul Qureshi, his former partner from Pakistan.

These two tennis players from India and Pakistan, the two nuclear-armed neighbours that have fought three wars since the partition in 1947, won a lot of matches and hearts together, even coming close to winning a Grand Slam title when they finished runners-up at the 2010 US Open final.

Now, these two friends will be battling to outwit each other when Bopanna and his partner Matthew Ebden of Australia face Qureshi and Skander Mansouri of Tunisia in Dubai on Tuesday.

During a freewheeling chat with Khaleej Times, Bopanna opens up about winning his first-ever Grand Slam doubles title at the ripe old age of 43, his evergreen friendship with Qureshi and a message from Rafael Nadal.

Q. Tomorrow (Tuesday) will be your first match since you won the Australian Open last month with Ebden. It was a humongous occasion, you winning your first men’s doubles Slam after such a long wait. The whole country was celebrating your win…

It was overwhelming, the response has been so amazing, you know, the entire country was celebrating, which was great and I think tennis as a sport (in India) also needed it. I feel we were lacking some inspiration, everyone needed a boost. So it was amazing, I also got to meet the honourable Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi. The amount of support he is giving sports, helping sports grow in the country, I think has been amazing. So it’s really been beautiful, the three weeks in India have been beautiful, spent a lot of time with family and friends, done a lot of events, and now it’s good to be back and playing. Happy to be back on the circuit, this is what I have been doing for 30 years.

Q. But the historic win in Australia would not have happened if you had quit the sport in 2021 during the lowest phase of your career when you lost seven matches in a row. When you look back now, does it feel special that you didn’t give up?

It is special when I look back now, all those difficult moments that we go through, but I am proud that I didn’t stop when I was down, I kept pushing, the perseverance has always helped me grow in the sport, constantly trying to find new ways, trying to find new different techniques, how to improve, how to keep myself fit, I focused a lot on recovery, I think that was very important for me as I am getting older, more than just going to the gym and training on strength, I changed the routine and I started doing a lot more yoga and ice baths every day, focus on recovery. That I think helped me physically feel better, and then just started enjoying my tennis again on the court.

Q. Of course, even the Prime Minister of India felicitated you after you returned to India. But what was even more heartening to see was the congratulatory message on social media from Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known…

It feels really special that your peers, all the tennis players you have grown up with, are also happy for you for what you have achieved. Even here in Dubai, I am meeting a lot of players now because in Australia very few of them left in the last few days of the tournament. But the rest of the players, whoever I met, had wonderful things to say, so many of them messaged me, of course, got a beautiful message from Rafa as well, it was special. Anytime champions like that appreciate what you have done, I think it adds so much more value and makes it more special.

Q. Coming back to Dubai, you won this tournament twice. And now you are going to play against Aisam, your friend from Pakistan. It was a famous pair, you guys brought so much joy and happiness to the fans on both sides of the border. So what is it like to be playing against Aisam with whom you enjoyed so much success?

The number one thing is we are still able to sustain and play for such a long period of time. Both of us are the same age, we were born in the same year and same month, and he is such a dear friend of mine. But when we go on the court, obviously we are professionals and we have been doing this for such a long time, but on and off the court, we are still very close friends. No matter who wins out there, I don’t think, we are really thinking about winning or losing, we just got to go, compete and play our best tennis. The friendship remains, and that is the biggest thing.

Q. In a way, it’s a bit magical that 10 years after you won this tournament together, you would be competing against each other here on the court.

I think the biggest thing is that both of us are still competing. Especially when we won it in 2014, we were 34 years old and 10 years later to say that we would still be competing here, if somebody said that, we probably would not have believed that. So that is the amazing part.

Q. You are a globe-trotting tennis player, you have seen it all. Does this Dubai tournament feature on your list of best events to play in?

Absolutely, it does. I think the Dubai Duty Free tournament really, really, keeps getting better every year, I have a wonderful connection with the tournament, and there are a lot of fans who come out and support us. It’s getting better and better over the years. We can literally walk into the court from our hotel room, it’s really nice, the way they organise it, even if tomorrow I am not playing this event, I would love to keep coming here and watching this event and that is what I think the most beautiful thing.


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