Here we look back at how the relationship between two of the best doubles players in the world first began unravelling ten years ago.
Indian Davis Cup non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi’s controversial decision yesterday to drop Leander Paes from the team that will play Uzbekistan, signals in all probability the end of at least one phase of latter’s career – his 27-year continuous run as a member of the country’s Davis Cup entourage. Though he will be 44 in June this year, Leander laid the blame for this humiliation on the bitter rivalry that he has had with Hesh over better part of the last decade. Here we look back at how the relationship between two of the best doubles players in the world first began unravelling ten years ago.
Acceptance is the bitterness we all must swallow some time. – The Cheesy Line Champion
Whatever you may have to say about the aesthetics of the above words, they possess truth. And it is acceptance that we will need in dealing with the latest, perhaps, final, breakdown of the Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi combination. Let’s face it, it’s over between them. They might still play occasionally for India – we don’t have an abundance of tennis players, after all – but not more. The Indian Express has gone off track. Not even the world’s best rail mechanic or Lalu Prasad Yadav is going to be able to do anything about it.
But it’s been some ride. Lasting over a decade, it brought the country top-level success in a tough, competitive game, and gave the profile of Indian sport a global touch.
Let’s relive the I-Express journey.
The two bogeys of the Express were built miles away from each other. Leander, the engine of the team in the initial years, was put together in Kolkata; Mahesh in Muscat. Leander’s DNA was as laden with athletic qualities as the Big New Yorker Pizza is with calories. His father, Dr Vece Paes, was a hockey player, a member of the bronze-winning Indian team of the 1972 Munich Olympics. His mother, Jennifer, was a basketball player. She too was representing India in Munich. In addition to Vece’s bronze, the couple brought back something else from Munich – Leander in his mother’s womb. “They were supposed to be playing sport, not mucking around,” Leander joked to Tennis magazine once.
Surprisingly for someone born in a sporting family, Leander did not have a healthy initiation to life. As a child he had chicken-pox and mumps, four convulsions between the age of three and five, a microvalve prolapse and Osgood Schlatter’s disease (an injury among children resulting from excessive wear and tear of the knee joint). Other doctors told Vece that his child better not play sports. But moved by Leander’s obvious love for playing and his own hunch, he let him.
Along with tennis, Leander loved football. He had a gift for it. Few know that in the Eighties, talent scouts from PSV Eindhoven, the famous Dutch club, visited India. Leander was one of the boys they short-listed. But he had to pick one sport, and tennis is what he went with. By the age of 12, he had established himself as one of India’s promising youngsters. So when the Britannia Amritraj Trust (BAT) was set up in Chennai, he was an obvious pick. The move marked his becoming of a man, both as a player and as a person. At BAT he received the world-class coaching, which helped him win junior Wimbledon in 1990 and become the player he did.
Mahesh, younger by a year than Leander, was born to Krishna and Meera Bhupathi. In a scene reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, an Anna Praasana ceremony was held for him when he was a baby. The ritual entails placing a few tools representing professions in front of a newborn. What he touches is said to determine what he becomes. One of the things Mahesh’s father kept before him was a tennis racquet.
As the boy grew, Krishna drove him hard, making him hit hundreds of balls in the intense Muscat heat. Mahesh has admitted missing being a normal kid, and Krishna Bhupathi’s methods were extreme enough to believe that had Mahesh not been successful, father and son would have had a strained relationship.
Mahesh went to college in the United States. Though not as luminescent as Leander as a junior, he scored some big results, winning the junior Wimbledon doubles in 1992 and leafing Mississippi University to the prestigious NCAA title in 1995.
The Indian Express was conceived in 1994, in the Jakarta precinct. Leander, by now the exciting young leader of Indian tennis, decided to play with the then virtually unknown Mahesh. His analysis that the two could scale the peaks is one of the great visionary moments in Indian sport. He saw potential when no one else did. Leander’s group did not agree with his choice of long-term partner. But once Leander Paes makes up his mind about something, no one can change it.
Mahesh made his Davis Cup debut for India against Hong Kong in 1995. He and Leander played their first match for India against the Croatians later the same year. Where the ATP tour was concerned, it was two years later that the Indian Express began to chug at full steam. In a growth spurt the like of which has rarely been seen in Indian sport, the two won not one or two but six ATP tour titles. In 1998, bang! Six more. They became rich, popular and in terms of performance, the number one act in Indian sport. In December 1996, Leander said that he believed he and Mahesh could win Grand Slam titles. At a time when no Indian had even reached the final of a senior Grand Slam, it was a huge statement. Two years later, they had reached that stage.
In 1998, Leander and Mahesh reached three Grand Slam semi-finals. They had the nous and the momentum to go further, but couldn’t. Fans wondered if the duo was jinxed at the Majors.
The next year changed that. In 1999, they reached the Australian Open final, losing a five-set classic to Pat Rafter and Jonas Bjorkman. Though heart-broken at losing after battling for hours in a packed Rod Laver Arena, Leander and Mahesh were galvanised by the performance. It set them up for their landmark year. This was also a time, interestingly, when differences between the two first surfaced. Coincidentally, it was the Indian Express that reported the story first. Mahesh had nearly caught up with Leander with some splendid tennis in the previous couple of seasons. Specifically, three performances bolstered his standing. The first was in the Davis Cup tie against a powerful Dutch team in Jaipur in 1996; the second was his 1997 French Open mixed doubles crown with Rika Hiraki, which launched him into the history orbit as the first Indian to win a Grand Slam; and third his fifth rubber win over Gabriel Silberstein that gave India a 3-2 win over fancied Chile in 1997. We are all competitive, especially in our youth. For the proud Leander, it was a challenge to handle Mahesh’s growth. Then came the Indian Express story where he said Mahesh didn’t train as hard as he should. As a result, when they reached Chennai for the Gold Flake Open, the tension between the two was thicker than strawberry milkshake at McDonald’s. Yet, they won. It was their third title in a row at a stage where the great trip had begun for them. It was an important victory, for it had arrived at a time when their personal relationship was breaking. That they still won highlighter their professionalism. It showed that when they had a match to win, they could leave their disputes at courtside. Indeed, among the unforgettable experiences of the tournament was watching their mutual coldness melt in the heat of the excitement. In the initial matches, they didn’t speak to each other. By the final, the legendary chest collisions were back. A little over two months later, they won their first Grand Slam crown, the French Open in Paris. A month on, they enjoyed the greatest moment of their careers. They won Wimbledon. A run to the final of the US Open made them the first pair since Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman to reach all four major finals in a year. They lost the match, but finished the year as number one. Their contribution was now beyond doubt and India showed her appreciation when the two returned home. Felicitations and high life, which had been a part of their lives the previous two seasons, now peaked. One evening, a celebrity match with Bachchan and Naseer. Another day, a date with the city’s corporate czars. Yet another day, ribbon-cutting appearances in music and sports shops, not to mention invitations on various television networks.
And then it was over… gone. Like a hat in the wind. In May 2000, Leander and Mahesh decided to go their own ways. There were many causes attributed to the split, including money and a girlfriend, but most blamed it on the people around the two, specifically Enrico Piperno, once Leander’s state mate but now on the Mahesh side of the table. “They are not splitting because the two have a problem. It is because of a third party problem,” Krishna Bhupathi said.
The nation was intrigued as it was shocked. Why would they split? With the exception of the Woodies – Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde – of Australia, they were the best doubles team in the world. Why would they kiss goodbye to the victories that they just had to show up for? Indians, among them the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, hoped they would get back together. They did, and even won the French Open in 2001. But the reunions were temporary because they were in other tennis relationships now. There was a time when they played with different partners only if either of the two was injured. Now they played with each other only if their other partners were injured. After the recent explosion in Doha, even that is unlikely to happen.
We face facts. We accept the tragedy of the end of a force that gave Indian sport a lot but not as much as it could have. But the question remains. Who is to blame?
They were a team, and in a team sport, bouquets and brickbats must be shared. Both Leander and Mahesh were responsible in their own way for the collapse of their partnership. “I wish the whole incident with Mahesh hadn’t taken place,” Leander had said in 2001. “It was partly my fault too. It takes two to tango, after all.”
Both erred into letting their competitive streak out of control. While it is human to feel envy and insecurity, you cannot be blinded by it, especially in a partnership. Both could have been more assured about their place in Indian history. Leander is a performer like no other – athletic and with surpassing volleying skill. He is an Olympic medallist, Davis Cup lion, winner of an ATP Tour singles title and a junior Grand Slam champion. Mahesh too has his special achievements. As stated above, he is the first Indian to win senior Grand Slam title. Statistically, his ten Slams (men’s and mixed double) make him the most successful Indian doubles player. Where was the need to rivalise their relationship to such an extreme degree?
Nonetheless, the deed is done. One only prays now that their rift does not overshadow what they accomplished on the tennis court. People should remember them for their aces more than their faults.