Top seeds Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan saved six match points in an edge-of-the-seat thriller against Leander Paes and Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela to move to the semifinals of the Tata Open Maharashtra, on Thursday.
After splitting the two sets, the Super Tie Breaker turned out to be a cliffhanger in which Paes and his Mexican partner had as many as six chances to close the match but the Asian Games gold medallists held their nerves to remain alive.
At 8-8, Paes appeared to have served a double fault but the chair umpire and the linesman did not call and a livid Bopanna began an argument with the match official but to no avail.
The match had all the ingredients of a thriller in which the top seeds eventually prevailed 6-7(4) 6-4 17-15 after one hour and 45 minutes.
Immediately after saving their sixth match point to make it 15-15, Bopanna smashed a volley winner to earn their second match point and finished it with a lob, which landed near the baseline, sailing over their opponents. The shot ended the 24-minute super tie breaker.
Nevertheless, it was a superb match played by veteran Paes who initially served big, losing just four points in the entire first set on his serve.
Miguel was easily the best player on the court with his game craft, solid returns and volleying at the net.
Left-handed Sharan was the easiest to attack as several times he just pushed the ball, giving his opponents ample time to get into position and find suitable return.
The first break chance was created by Bopanna in the fourth game off Mexican’s serve when he found a backhand winner down the line but Miguel saved it with an ace.
Soon, Miguel hit a service return winner to earn two break chances for his team but Bopanna served strong to save both and also the deciding point.
Paes was the only player, of all four on court, who did not concede a single point on his serve in his first two service games even as Sharan saved two break points and a deciding point in the seventh to stay ahead.
It was Miguel who placed a perfect spin-loaded lob when Sharan served at 15-30 to earn the chances.
Bopanna held his own in the ninth and Paes was now serving to stay in the opening set. Sharan placed a winner between the two players near the base line as Paes conceded first point on his serve.
His backhand return then just went long as he went down 0-30. Bopanna tried to steal points with angles but his soft returns sailed over the side lines.
Miguel’s soft hands were at play again as they saved two set points to make it 5-5.
Sharan’s serve was put under pressure in the next but he and Bopanna managed to hold, saving a break point with Paes hitting the forehand on net.
The tie-breaker too was close with teams locked 4-4. From there both Paes and his partner found a volley winner each to earn their first set point.
Sharan, feeling the heat, smacked Paes’ serve long to hand the opponents the first set.
Several times Sharan gave easy soft balls while Miguel in the opposite team remained solid throughout and it made a hug difference.
The top seeds drew the first blood in the second set in the third game, breaking Paes, who went down 0-40.
Bopanna found a service return winner and then the veteran Indian hit one out. Sharan hit a fierce return on the second break point as Miguel could not pick it.
The top seeds threw away the advantage with Sharan losing his serve in the next game.
Bopanna and Sharan, though, were back in the match when Paes dropped his serve for the second time in a row, again going down 0-40, struggling with his first serve.
Two more breaks followed and Bopanna served out the set at love to take it to the Super Tie Breaker.
Bopanna and Sharan are playing their first tournament together on the Tour as a team. They joined forces, keeping in mind the Tokyo Olympics.
The result means that Paes has not won a match in the last two and a half years when there is at least an Indian across the net.
While playing against Sharan, he lost four times — at European Open (November, 2018), Citi Open (July, 2018), Bordeaux Challenger (May 2017) and Chennai Open (2017).
Against Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan also he lost four times — at Monterrey Challenger (October, 2018), Hall of Fame Open in Newport (July, 2018) and Dallas Challenger (January 2018) and Pune Open (January, 2018). Against Bopanna, he lost at Dubai in February, 2017.
The last win for Paes against a top Indian player came way back in September, 2016 when Paes and Andre Begemann got the better of Purav Raja and Sharan at St Petersburg Open.
‘We will be tough team to beat in future’
Bopanna, ranked 37, and Sharan (39) joined forces at the beginning of the year and have committed to play together on the Tour for the first time. Bopanna said playing with a fellow Indian and that too a left-hander is something he has not done before and it has lots of advantages.
"I had had a lot of partners but I am playing with a left-hander first time. Playing with somebody from India is always better. Even when I played with Mahesh in 2012, we had great time, irrespective of results. We enjoyed the sport, so it’s a bonus," said Bopanna.
Sharan, who had to change about 14 partners in the 2018 season, said playing with a strong server is a big advantage. "I have never played with someone like Bopanna who has such a big serve. It makes my life easy. It’s not easy being on court when he hits those powerful strokes. If we play well in next 2-3 months, I think we will be a tough team to beat," Sharan said.
The Delhi southpaw also said that having similar rankings also influenced their decision to team up. "Since Asian Games, we have similar rankings. With others it was becoming difficult to enter into big tournaments like Masters. Tokyo is far but it’s a good target to have, it will also depend on how we improve as a team."
At 8-8, Paes appeared to have hit a fault but since the umpires did not give the call, it put Bopanna and Sharan down by a match point. "All four players on the court knew it was a fault. But you have to let it go. It was crucial at that time but we had to regroup. The umpire said since I was blocking his view, the lines man had to make a call," said Bopanna.
Asked about his fragile serve in Thursday match, Sharan said it was because the "conditions changed". "It was slower as the match wore on and all of us were struggling. They also got broken three times. But at crucial times in the Super Tie break, I got my first serve going. You always learn from such matches."