Late last year, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi decided to take a leap of faith—after nine years of bitter feuding, the former world No. 1 doubles pair became on-court partners again.
“All it took was breakfast in Paris and we figured we should play together,” Bhupathi said last month in Mumbai. Paes-Bhupathi had not played together on the professional or ATP circuit in nine years— they represented the country in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and Davis Cup matches when they were selected by the All India Tennis Association and didn’t have much of a choice.
Pairing up: Leander Paes (left) and Mahesh Bhupathi. Photograph by Elsa/Getty Images/AFP
It has been a bit of a bumpy ride so far for the two men, who seem to be destined to play together. The reunion, which kicked off in January, has seen a lone appearance in a Grand Slam final, a Chennai Open title and a couple of ATP Masters titles in Miami and Cincinnati. The rest of the list is full of glaring second-round exits, at Wimbledon, the French Open and a handful of ATP Tour events that the pair had won with ease in the past. Now, the focus is on the 2011 US Open starting 29 August, where the duo had lost in the final in 1999, when they were at their peak.
“They started the year well but it’s been a bit up and down. Both of them play well on hard courts so they have a great chance at the US Open, as long as they stay focused and injury-free,” says former Davis Cup player and Paes’ former doubles partner, Gaurav Natekar.
The impetus is in place. The initial burst and energy with which they reunited after nearly a decade reflected in their performance at the season’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, in January. Losing to the current world No. 1 pair, Bob and Mike Bryan, was heartbreaking. “Any loss is agonizing. Wouldn’t it be better to lose in round 1 than to get to a Grand Slam final and lose? It is a matter of finding form, rhythm and confidence. They are hard to come by and more difficult to preserve,” says Paes.
“What I am most happy about is that we have found that friendship again, a happy median after all these years. That is because of the history we have on court. It pleases me that we have rekindled it this year,” adds Paes.
But has being together on the Tour and playing with each other worked so far?
“We never had a problem keeping the past aside. We’ve played the Davis Cup together for around 14 years. The bottom line is we may or may not win. We are (ranked) eighth in the world, we have known and beaten most of the teams out there, so we have as good a chance as anyone,” says Bhupathi (Paes and Bhupathi are currently world No. 4 in men’s doubles).
It is a thought shared by the man both hold in high regard, former Davis Cup captain Naresh Kumar. “I have been seeing and meeting both of them and I don’t know how they have managed it, but they seem to have a good mental connect at the moment. This could be because they are wiser now and they probably know that they have suffered because of the break-up,” says Kumar.
“It’s a question of keeping their commitment to the sport and to each other,” siad says Vijay Amritraj, a former Davis Cup captain and television commentator. “They are not the same team that they were, but if they enjoy playing with each other, then it will show.”
“Most of the current players did not see them during their peak,” observes Natekar. “They respect Leander and Mahesh, but they also know they can beat them. The aura they had was gone when they split up.”
Flushing Meadows, the venue for the US Open, has been a happy hunting ground for the two, but with different partners. Erasing memories of the loss at the 1999 final here by claiming their fourth US Open crown, and their first together, will certainly be a motivation. “They have a good chance at the US Open,” says Kumar. “There is also a trend of younger teams hitting out and taking chances. They could be dangerous, but if Leander and Mahesh are injury-free, then the two are more than compensated by the fact that they are a far better team than any other. They need build-up matches, though, to peak at the right time.”
Paes and Bhupathi are beginning to get back into the groove —they beat the world’s top doubles pair Bob and Mike Bryan in the final of the Cincinnati Masters last week.
Family and friends who have seen the two over the years say they have come together mainly because they need each other. Despite all the off-court commitments that Paes and Bhupathi have individually, they both know this will be their last chance to win the biggest prize in sports. Their flirtatious trysts with Olympic glory have been well documented. A heart-rending grasp at the bronze medal in Athens in 2004, and the fall to unexpected eventual winners Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, will probably stoke the duo’s hunger for another shot at the medal.
“That will be the pinnacle of my career,” says Paes, who won an individual bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996. “Playing in my sixth Olympics will be awesome and I will be there at Wimbledon, where the Olympic matches will be held. It is one of my greatest desires to win a doubles gold.”
Bhupathi is more cautious: “I’ve kind of erased that from my memory. In every athlete’s career, you have ups and downs. If you keep thinking about the lows, it’s hard to move on. The media makes us (seem) more desperate.”
Will one more strike of fortune make up for the nine years lost? The seasoned Amritraj says: “If getting back together, going by the way they started off, didn’t do it…then nothing will. I’d like to think they can win an Olympic medal, but it’s sure going to be tighter.”
Rupha Ramani is a senior sports correspondent, CNN-IBN.
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org