There’s competition off-court too, as tennis players Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq-Qureshi, who are all set for the Aircel Chennai Open, participate in a cook-off

The lobby of the Hyatt Regency is largely peaceful and vacant, except for the constant trickling in and out of tennis players. Each one walks about in shorts (hard not to notice their strong and toned calf muscles) with their giant kits strapped onto their backs, going out to practice or returning after a game. But inside Focaccia (the hotel’s Italian restaurant) it’s a different ball game. Two other players turn up, looking dapper in semi formals, something we hardly see them in. Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq-Qureshi have a task at hand, that of competing against each other in a cookout. It’s not often that they find themselves playing against each other. It’s all very MasterChef-esque as the two tie their aprons; wear their gloves and chef’s hats. There’s a giggle from the motley audience as Qureshi tries to tie his apron around his neck. “It goes around the waist,” one of the chefs from the kitchen helpfully suggests. Before the actual contest begins he finds himself struggling with another challenge — wearing the blue rubber glove. He pulls, tugs, tears a hole and finally, it’s done!

Now, for the tough part. Bopanna and Qureshi are required to make a pizza and a salad. The pizza base is kept ready; the toppings are chopped and ready. “We didn’t want them nicking their fingers ahead of their game,” laughs one of the organisers.

The two are given a choice of sauces and toppings for the pizza; all they have to do is choose a few and slather them on in four minutes. “What’s this?” asks Bopanna pointing to a few of the toppings. “You eat food, right? You should know what they are!” comes the reply from another in-charge.

Leap of faith

Taking a leap of faith he reaches out to an ingredient and generously smears it on the base. He is later informed that its eggplant. After which he’s called “Baingan Express” and “Baingan Bopanna” for the rest of the evening. He adds a bit of olive and lots of cheese and makes a vegetarian pizza. “Because a lot of people here are vegetarians. All my trainers are vegetarians…they should be able to eat it, right?” says Bopanna. Qureshi’s choice of toppings includes chicken, peppers, olives, chilli flakes and mozzarella.

Their pizzas are then carefully put into the oven by one of the chefs. While it takes seven minutes for the pizza to get done, the two tennis players move on to Task 2. This involves making a salad. The ingredients are all placed in front of them: there’s lettuce, potato, varieties of cheese and tomato…the only catch is to avoid the few ingredients that usually never go into a salad. As they take a position in front of the counter they look a tad uncertain, but nevertheless bravely soldier on starting off with clumps of lettuce.

Their selection of ingredients is similar. Bopanna goes with shiitake mushrooms, tomato, lettuce, parmesan, mozzarella and olive oil and Qureshi opts for tomatoes, parmesan and shiitake mushrooms. Perhaps that’s what years of playing together does — sync their thoughts. They then pose with their creations, beaming contentedly.

The final score

Finally, its time for the results. There’s excitement, a hint of edginess and the aroma of pizza. The four judges, including Chef Gopi, Bopanna’s wife, a diner at the restaurant and one of the organisers sample the dishes, few of them also going for second helpings. Each one chalks down their score and the winner is Bopanna who scores a 33 out of 40 and Qureshi manages a 29. Not a bad score, we think, considering they do much better where it actually matters.