‘Never Felt The Same Way With Any Other Partner,’ Mahesh Bhupathi On Leander Paes
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi teamed up for the first time on-court in 1994 before grabbing ATP Challenger-level titles in 1995 and 1996. It wasn’t until 1997 though that the duo would play together regularly. On home soil, they won their first ATP Tour title together at the Chennai Open, in April. Bhupathi’s mixed doubles French Open title (with Japan’s Rika Hiraki), later that year, also marked the first time an Indian had ever lifted a Grand Slam winners’ trophy.
In 1998, Bhupathi combined with Paes in men’s doubles to add six more ATP Tour titles to their list of honours, raising expectations of the first-ever all-Indian Grand Slam. The next year would bring them closer to that dream.
The duo made it to their first Grand Slam final at the 1999 Australian Open, where they lost out in a thrilling five-setter. But they were quick to make amends in the 1999 French Open final, winning their first major in straight sets, and as a result, becoming the number one ranked men’s doubles pair in the world before claiming the maiden Indian Wimbledon that year.
But the duo have had their share of ups and downs in an iconic partnership over the years. They will relive them in the upcoming docu-series ‘Break Point,’ which releases on October 1 on ZEE5.
We sat down with them in a candid chat, ahead of the premiere.
Where did the idea of this docu-series come from?
MB: So the idea came about when we heard that both Nitesh ans Ashwini were interested in talking to us. We have been approached many times over the last many years, but we never felt comfortable enough on the platform or the structure. But, when we spoke to Nitesh, and Ashwini, obviously, we took that call, because they’re amazing storytellers and they love tennis. The way they wanted to tell the narrative was not necessarily a two hour film, but they wanted to try and capture as much of the journey as possible. So that that made it exciting for us. And that’s why we did it.
Do you guys remember when you met for the first time? Please take us inside the initial memories and how your friendship blossomed.
LP: It was February of 1990. And we met for the first time in Colombo in Sri Lanka. And in that I watched him hit backhand after backhand. He was practicing his backhand crosscourt. And I had an intuition that these two young Indian boys could win Wimbledon. Mahesh was 15 at the time, and I was 16. And when he came off the court, I introduced myself said, “Hi, I’m Leander”, he turned around, said, “Hi, I’m Mahesh”. And I said, “Would you like to win Wimbledon?” And he said, “You’re crazy.” And he burst out laughing? And I said, “Yeah, I know, I’m crazy. But would you like to remember Wimbledon?” Well, four months after that, I won the singles at junior Wimbledon, and we shared a room and built up a camaraderie and a friendship. And nine years later, we won Wimbledon together, which was quite amazing. And you’ll get to see that in the docu series of how champions are built.
Given the media attention, and all the public discourse, has it ever been awkward to face each other?
MB: No, I mean, we even after we didn’t play on tour together, we played for like a decade, when it came to playing for India, in Olympics, Asian Games, Davis Cup. So, you know, we never had an issue. We always were able to play the high quality tennis on court, when we were together. That never kind of, you know, wasn’t never was never a thorn in our side.
How has it been spending all this time together during promotions for the series? Do you guys stay in touch like this, or this has been something different to experience collectively?
LP: Right throughout the last 18 months, the number of Zoom calls, we’ve made the number of hours we’ve put together making Break Point has been a fabulous experience we are really grateful to Ashwini Iyer Tiwari and Nitesh Tiwari and the whole production crew at Earth sky productions, because not just are they creative geniuses in the way they’ve webbed together the Leander-Mahesh story, but also in the way they’ve given us the freedom to tell the story very truthfully. That’s one thing I respect about what Mahesh and myself have always done in our in our lives, is we’ve had the courage to, to do things honestly.
Even when we had differences of opinions, we were able to put them aside and get onto the court and play for our country. And win in Davis Cup and win Grand Slams for the country where today we sit with the world record for the most number of undefeated matches in Davis Cup. If you look at what Zee Five allowed us to do, is that they didn’t just want us to sugarcoat the story. The story is not a candy floss — everything’s good, nonsensical, you know, fictional story. This is the hard truth. This is raw, this is real. And we’re grateful to Zee 5 and the whole crew there for allowing us to tell it real, and also for believing in the Leander-Mahesh story. And in likewise, at collective artists with Vijay Subramanyam, and Ashoo Naik, like to do the business behind the scenes and bring everybody to the table. It’s been a great experience. And I think that the fans are just going to love it on the first of October, I
What kind of equation do you guys share at present?
MB: Leander and me have a bond that has not only (come) a journey, but all the work all the sacrifice, all the heartache put into it. And it’s very hard for people to understand this bond. But it remains between us, you know, if we don’t speak for two weeks, if we don’t speak for two years, this bond remains. And I think it will remain for life. So you know, if we need to come together when we need to come together, we always do. And it’s always shown in our results as well.
What are the similarities between your personalities, beyond tennis that is?
LP: I mean, we’ve always like the same kind of music. We watch the same kind of movies of you obviously love desi food. You know, we, we have very different sense of humor. Mahesh’s is birthday is on the seventh of June and mine on the 17th of June. So there there’s a kinetic energy between us that we just have this undying, underlying unconditional bond, you know, which is really magical.
What kind of music was that?
LP: Come on Hesh. Tell him what songs you chose.
MB: Yeah, for me, it was, you know, you know, we both like to watch a lot of movies. So for me, it was more like the flavor of the month. So whichever song was hot in Bollywood at that time was something that I think even actually, once we actually chose ‘Who let the dogs out.’ That was Leander’s choice.
LP (laughs): Yeah, sure. That was my choice.
Did you ever feel the same way with any other partner?
LP: We complete each other, you know; the things that Mahesh can do; I can’t the things I can do the content. The beauty of a bond is that we have grown over the years now to understand that more. I think that the reason that we were able to win so successfully, and become the number one team in the world is that we, we really completed each other. Mahesh’ backhand is world class. My forehand is not too bad. His serves and smashes are world-class, my movement is not too bad. You know, my speed is not too bad. My volleys were not too bad. So, in that, the hard yards that we put together, were just amazing. I think that’s what I cherish a lot about, and I respect about Mahes, is that he believed in the dream and worked so hard to prove that we Indians can be world beaters, that we can be the best in the world in our craft. And that’s something that’s always going to be in the history books that were the first Grand Slam champions as a team from India. And also we have the world record and Davis Cup.
MB: Not from my end. I played with, you know, some of the biggest names in the sport, right from Todd Woodbridge, to Mark Knowles and Max Mirnyi — all multiple Grand Slam champions. With Leander, the one thing I felt was, regardless of the opposition, or regardless of the score, during the match, I felt we always had a chance to win the match. So that is something I never felt with anyone else.
In hindsight, what would you say to your 25-year-old self, if you had the chance?
LP: Interesting that you say 25-year-old self, because that’s when we were just about starting to win. I think that in 2000, when things started unraveling, after we won Grand Slams, if I had a chance to speak to my 25 year old self, I would probably tell that kid that just pick up the phone and call him and say, let’s go get some ice cream. Let’s go take a holiday together — just both of us — and sort out our differences. You know what sometimes, hindsight is perfect, no? It’s always 20/20. And you can make the best decisions at the moment only with the best knowledge you have. But what I really cherish is Mahesh and what we’ve achieved together and more than what we’ve achieved together is the unconditional brotherhood. We have I know he’s always there for me if I need him, and he knows I’m always there for him if he needs me. So it’s really special that our brotherhood has stood the test of time.
MB: I would’ve said, “Just listen to Leander more.”
How did your families react to the news of the series?
MB: It was our decision to make — if we wanted to do it. And then, our families have been incredibly supportive through the whole journey, from day one. So, getting them involved — they all spoke, parents, siblings — they’ve all been part of it. So that was a little nerve racking for them. Because they’re not used to doing this stuff. But yeah, it seems to have come out pretty well.
LP: Well, first of all, you know, we decided to make this docu series together. But then we had to convince the families to take part in it. That was the tricky part — to tell our parents that hey, you have got to come on and be in front of a camera and speak and relive the last 20 years. That was the tricky part. We both have friends without names taken, we both have friends who weren’t too comfortable to come on, and rightly so.
So just to wrap up, any final thoughts, any, any music recommendations, any movie recommendations, anything that you’d like to add?
MB: Maybe not ‘who let the dogs out.’