Novak Djokovic’s triumph in the Australian Open adds a fascinating dimension to contemporary men’s tennis. The past few years have been so utterly dominated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal that everything else—including the achievements of the hugely talented Serbian champion and losing finalist Andy Murray—has been diminished. Will this Grand Slam change the perception of tennis lovers and/or the pecking order in the rankings?
Maybe, though it would be presumptuous in the extreme to believe that Fedex and Rafa will not bounce back with resolve redoubled. Moreover, Fedex and Rafa are not just champions, they are megastars. Contrasting personalities and playing styles have made their intense rivalry even more engaging, won them a massive number of eyeballs and virtually divided fans down the middle.
Left out: Mahesh Bhupathi (left) and Leander Paes lost in the final of the Australian Open last week. Reuters
But that could change in the future. Both Djokovic and Murray have been doggedly pursuing the Big Two over the past couple of years, and this year holds out promise of great contests, if not many surprises, among the top 10. It is important that Djokovic beat Federer in three sets en route to the final, which also he won in three. This could be the trigger for the Djoker, as Djokovic is often referred to on the circuit, to become a more serious contender for the top spot.
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Men’s tennis now boasts of the best talent since the mid-1950s and 1960s, when a clutch of brilliant Aussies led by Rod Laver, and including Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Fred Stolle and John Newcombe, ruled the roost, or the mid-1970s and early 1980s, when Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas, Vitas Gerulaitis and Ivan Lendl were around with a young gun like Jimmy Arias snapping at their heels. Apart from Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, there’s also the enigmatic Andy Roddick, I’ll-return-everything David Ferrer, Robin Söderling of the booming serve—all in the top 10—who add heft and class to the Grand Slams and ATP tournaments. The gifted Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who could be mistaken for a young Muhammad Ali, the boxer, comes in only at 18, revealing the depth in the men’s section.
From an Indian point of view, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi showed that their reunion has more validation than just mushy sentimentalism. Till they were spanked by the Bryan brothers (Bob and Mike) in the doubles final, the “Indian Express” had played with gusto and aplomb, shrugging off any rustiness that may have set in after a separation of more than nine years. Obviously, teaming up for the Davis Cup every now and then has been a help.
Late last year, when I met Paes at an event in Mumbai, he seemed excited about playing with Bhupathi again but added a caveat that the future of the partnership would be reviewed after the Chennai Open (which they later won) and the Australian Open. I would urge him now to drop the review—they should focus instead on making their second innings, as it were, stronger.
It was evident in the fortnight of the Australian Open that the mutual understanding of doubles play has hardly been hampered. The chest thumps after winning a point, which had become symbolic of the partnership, may have become a trifle less exuberant (after all, age catches up), but not their court-craft or sizzle.
To be frank, Indian tennis is not exactly flush with great talent. Perhaps there is a whole brood of youngsters in the 8-12 age group which can bring titles and glory to India in the future, but currently, there are only a handful who pass muster. This makes continuation of the Lee-Hesh partnership not just worthwhile, but imperative.
Sania Mirza began well in Australia and was even a set up against Justine Henin, but then faded away. She is still feeling the after-effects of the wrist injury which has hampered her for almost a year and let’s face, it has also not looked like she is in the rhythm or form to climb up the rankings rapidly.
Somdev Devvarman has to establish his credentials more forcefully, while Yuki Bhambri is still on the fringes of becoming a big event player. Rohan Bopanna’s doubles partnership with Pakistan’s Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi has been a gripping story in the context of the subcontinent’s politics, but that charisma will wear off unless the wins are more frequent.
In my reckoning, it is important for Paes and Bhupathi to commit themselves as a duo till the London Olympics in 2012 to give Indian tennis wherewithal as well as fillip. Both are now on the wrong side of 30 and both have discovered major interests outside of tennis—Paes is moving into films while Bhupathi formalizes his relationship with actor Lara Dutta on 19 February.
But they must show resolve and focus to keep going for 18 months more at least as Indian tennis’ flag bearers. As the Australian Open showed, their skills are undiminished. Fitness at this age could be a recurring worry, but they’ve also shown that the hunger to compete at the highest level remains intact. What the duo needs now is belief in each other to be reinforced and sustained.
Meanwhile, irrespective of what they achieve or don’t in the future, will the government wake up and give these guys a Padma Bhushan for their efforts? Too late this time, but next year will be better late than never.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters
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