Rohan Bopanna eager to leave "worst year" of career behind

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After enduring what he describes as one of his "worst years" on the circuit, Rohan Bopanna is hopeful of bouncing back next season in the company of a new partner in Uruguay's Pablo Cuevas. Bopanna finished 2016 without a single tournament win and his individual doubles ranking has plummeted to 28. Having split with Romanian Florin Mergea, his partner for a large part of the last two years, Bopanna is now counting on improved results with Cuevas, who has a singles ranking of 22 and has won a men's doubles Grand Slam previously - the 2008 French Open with Luis Horna.

"I could have surely done much better," Bopanna told ESPN in Bangalore, where he is on a short break. "I am disappointed in the fact that I couldn't win a tournament this year though I made some finals. Changing partners constantly after Wimbledon doesn't really help. It was challenging, but something for me to learn from and keep moving forward.

"Florin (Mergea) sent me an email right after US Open that he would like to find a different partner, which I completely agree with. As an individual player if someone wants to make that change and look for something different, they have every right to do so. Hence I had to find a new partner and hence Pablo (Cuevas) came into the picture. He has a similar game to Florin, who served and stayed back. I am used to this kind of partnership, so I thought I would stick to a similar type of partnership and see if it helps me."

Bopanna has also decided to make changes to his methods and approach in his quest to overcome the downward spiral in his recent performances. After playing on the ad-court (left side of the court) in recent years, he will switch over to operating from the deuce court (right side) next year. He has had success in previous partnerships with Mahesh Bhupathi and Daniel Nestor by operating from the deuce court and is gambling on a similar outcome by returning to the formula.

The 36-year-old has also made changes to his training regime by experimenting at the fitness fight club over the last few days. Bopanna says one of his "main goals" for the remainder of his career is to win a men's doubles Grand Slam title, though he concedes it will be an uphill task on an increasingly competitive circuit.

"If you look at the Grand Slams for the past 3-4 years there hasn't been a team that has won consistently," he says. "That clearly shows the field is getting stronger, many more singles players are playing doubles. So you have to work with that, hence me getting a singles player as partner might just help me."

But despite all the tennis he has played this year, Bopanna does miss not being a part of the ATP World Tour Finals, where he has reached the men's doubles final twice, in 2012 and 2015.

"My main focus is to play the Masters series and doing well in the Grand Slams. The ATP tour Finals is going on this week and I will be wrong to say I am not missing it. Last year was a great experience as was 2012. So when I am watching on TV, I feel a little let down by myself, not being a part of it. So that is my goal for next year, to get back into the top eight teams."

Rio pain

One of Bopanna's biggest disappointments this year was missing out on a medal at the Rio Olympics. Having lost in the first round of the men's doubles with Leander Paes, Bopanna and Sania Mirza reached the semifinals of the mixed doubles before going down to Rajeev Ram and Venus Williams after taking the first set. A day later, they were beaten in the bronze medal play-off by the Czech pair of Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek. Bopanna admits that the memories of those two matches in Rio continue to haunt him.

"I think it is a high point and a very low point," he says. "Sometimes it's better to lose the first round than to come so close. When someone brings up the topic, I do feel really hurt. It would have made a big difference for the country to win a medal. As athletes we go out there to try and win a medal for India, so coming fourth was very hard to take.

"Looking at the overall picture we had a better chance in the semifinals match against Venus and Rajeev. In the bronze match it was very hard, sometimes you are reliving the moments from the earlier match. It was on the same court and less than 24 hours later. We gave it our best shot. Credit to Venus, who really stepped it up, and gave confidence to Rajeev to play his game also."

After their run in Rio and previous success at events such as the Hopman cup and the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), there have been murmurs of Bopanna and Mirza forging a partnership for the four Grand Slam tournaments next year. Bopanna, who played with different partners at each of the slams last year, says that while he would relish the opportunity to join forces with Mirza, he understands why the world number one would not want to split up her pairing with Croatia's Ivan Dodig.

"They are a good team, they reached the final of the French Open," he says. "You can't break up a team just like that. Everybody wants to play with someone who is playing really good tennis and Sania is playing her best tennis right now. If there is an opportunity to play mixed doubles together surely it will be a great chance. Mixed doubles is there are only four slams. Combined ranking is important too. My ranking is much lower, Ivan is higher, so obviously they will be seeded higher if they play together rather than if I team up with her."

Although he will be 40 at the time, Bopanna hasn't given up hopes of playing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics provided he can stay "fit and healthy." In the immediate future though, he is keen to get some down time in before the third season of the IPTL begins at the end of the month. Having missed the Davis Cup World Group play off tie against Spain in Delhi with an injury in September, Bopanna is keen to get back in the mix when the Indian team assembles for their next tie in February against New Zealand in Pune.

"If I am fit, I will be 100% available," he insists. "I am looking forward to the tie, it is on hard courts. I read they want to have three singles players in the squad, which leaves place for only one doubles specialist. So we will have to wait and see."