Olympic tennis: Last chance for Paes and Bhupathi

London: The only time India won a medal in tennis at the Olympic Games was when Leander Paes beat Fernando Meligini of Brazil for a bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Since then Leander, his world class doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi and India`s only Grand-Slam title winning woman player Sania Mirza have all been trying for another tennis medal but without luck. The closest they came to was when Paes-Bhupathi pair lost the bronze by a whisker to Croatia`s Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic at the Athens Games in 2004.

However, the London Games are being touted as the place where they can end the medal drought, though the draw forecasts a difficult time for the Indians.

Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes and Vishnu Vardhan have been handed tough first round matches. The Indians will have to play out of their skins for a podium finish.

Bhupathi-Bopanna, who have been seeded seventh, will face Belarus`s Max Mirnyi and Alexander Bury in the first Saturday tie while the unseeded Paes-Vardhan will take on the Dutch pair Robin Haase and Jean-Julien Rojer in the 32-team draw.

If they clear the first hurdle, Bhupathi-Bopanna will play either Britain`s Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins or Frenchmen Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet, and if the Indian pair is lucky to get to the next round, quarter-finals, the likely opponents will be Serbia`s No.3 seeds Nenad Zimonjic and Janko Tipsarevic.

Bhupathi and Bopanna have been seeded one rung ahead of Serbian pair of World No. 2 singles player Novak Djokovic and Victor Troicki.

The going is likely to be tougher for Paes and Vardhan, who should run into second seeded French pairing of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Michael Llodra in the second round, if they clear the first hurlde. Though, having Paes as a partner is a big advantage, the inexperience of Vardhan should also be taken into account.

Both Bhupathi and Paes have won majors on the grass of Wimbledon where the tournament is played. Leander has won four titles at the All England Club, one in the men`s doubles (with Bhupathi in 1999) and three in the mixed doubles, while Bhupathi has won three, including two mixed titles. This is the first time the tournament is being played on grass since tennis was reintroduced in the Olympics at Seoul in 1988.

In the mixed doubles, which has been reintroduced here for the first time since 1924, the pair of Paes and Sania Mirza are being touted as a real medal prospects as they have only two rounds to clear to reach a medal round. The draws and seeding will be announced on July 31. The two have won an Asian Games gold (Doha 2006) and a bronze (Busan 2002).

Wild card Somdev Devvarman, India`s sole singles representative at the Olympics, has a tough task ahead of him as he will meet Finland`s Jarko Nieminen in the men`s singles. Somdev, who is returning to big-time tennis after a shoulder injury kept him off court for nearly a year, has an opportunity to test his fitness.

The women`s doubles combination of Sania Mirza and Rushmi Chakravarthi begin their challenge against Su-Wei Hsieh and Chia-Jung Chuang of Chinese Taipei and they have little hope of looking ahead.