It was a scorching day in Melbourne, with the temperature climbing to 38 degrees near the 4.00 pm start of the match. That might explain partly why the green seats in Rod Laver Arena were mostly empty with only a scattering of fans cheering on the two pairs. That was disappointing to see, considering how exciting and swift doubles tennis is, and how entertaining the rallies can get. The higher (cheaper) rows did start to fill in as the match went on, but the attendance was still inadequate for such a high-quality match.
Inside the arena, under the closed roof, it was a relatively quiet and sultry afternoon, a calm setting before the storm of the men’s singles final coming up in a few hours between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic. For those who made the wise decision to get to Rod Laver Arena early to watch this match, the reward was watching four of the world’s best doubles players – two of whom had already won a title here this weekend – in action.
Bopanna and Babos, seeded fifth, faced eighth seeds Gabriela Dabrowski from Canada and Mate Pavic – the first of two Croats to play a final on Laver today. Pavic had won the men’s doubles the day before with Austrian partner Oliver Marach; the pair had defeated Bopanna and Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the quarterfinals. Babos had won the women’s doubles with Kiki Mladenovic of France. Dabrowski, on the other hand, had partnered Bopanna last year to win the French Open mixed doubles title.
The doubles world is a small one.
Bopanna served first to start the match and held easily. It was Dabrowski whose serve proved the most fragile in the early part of the match. In her very first service game, she faced a couple of breakpoints. Bopanna and Babos converted the second one to go up 3-1.
Bopanna’s shouts of “You” to his partner, and Babos’ Monia Seles-like grunts added some intensity to a match where the drama was mostly limited to the rallies. One exception came in the fifth game of the first set when the umpire stopped a point in the middle of a rally right after Babos ducked to avoid being hit by a Bopanna shot.
The umpire gave the point to their opponents, on the grounds that Bopanna had crossed Babos before hitting the ball. A brief discussion between the Indian and the chair umpire followed, but in the end, it didn’t matter because they won the game anyway. They broke Dabrowski again in the eighth game to take the first set 6-2 in 24 minutes. Bopanna’s big serve and swift interception of volleys at the net dominated the match for a while.
When Dabrowski won her first service game in the second set, a Canadian fan near me began to chant Canada’s national anthem. It’s easy to forget during a doubles match that the individual players belong to different countries, but whatever gets fans involved in these contests is good.
Dabrowski and Pavic won the second set 6-4, taking the match to a Super Tiebreak where the pair that wins 10 points first, with a difference of two, takes the match, and, in this case, the trophy. In the tiebreak, Pavic in upped his level, playing more aggressively, serving bigger, and hitting the ball as hard he could to his female opponent. The pair from Canada and Croatia went up 5-2.
But Bopanna and Babos fought hard to level the tiebreak at 6-6. The match at this point was dead even. It was a fun tiebreak to watch with the momentum switching back and forth rapidly and everyone getting more involved.
A passing shot down the line gave Bopanna and partner match point. Pavic saved it with an ace. He followed it up with another ace to give his team a match point of their own. Perhaps fittingly in a tournament where the women have outshone the men, this match concluded when Dabrowski, who had seemed to be the “weakest” player an hour ago, hit a forehand winner. She and Pavic won the tiebreak 11-9 in just over an hour. It was too soon! I could have watched some more doubles.
During the trophy presentation, Pavic told his opponents that hopefully they would come back here and “try to do better,” which drew some laughs from both the fans and their sporting opponents, including Bopanna.
India’s best prospects – in doubles – currently lie with Bopanna, who is ranked 19 in the world. Even though he turns 38 in March, and Indian tennis will soon have to look towards younger players.
But he did win three titles in 2017. For now, Bopanna is a title contender every time he steps onto a court with a doubles partner. This Australian Open was no different. The Indian had an excellent tournament to set things up for the rest of the season.
If Sunday’s mixed doubles final somehow felt like an opening act for the real show that was to come later in the evening, that does not tell the whole story of how hard the players work, the brilliant skills they possess, or how enjoyable it is to watch.
The match was an experience in itself. Dabrowski summed things up pretty well in her speech, “Doubles is really awesome. It’s a totally different vibe.”