It’s a question that’s never really been answered—why did the then world’s best men’s doubles pair break up their partnership almost 12 years ago? While the real reasons lie buried, what has always been out in the open is the animosity Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi feel towards each other—the latest example of which almost derailed India’s participation in the tennis doubles’ events at the London 2012 Olympics, starting month-end.
Like any good long-running prime-time soap, this is a story of politics, passion, love, hate and intrigue that has swung wildly from one direction to another. Over the years, it has featured feuding families, mysterious rumours about a love triangle, and conflicting business interests. Bhupathi and Paes have fought, split up, patched up, and reunited multiple times in the last decade. Somewhere from within this chaos, the pair also took doubles tennis by storm, winning 26 titles together from 1997-2011, including three Grand Slams, and two Asian Games. They resurrected doubles tennis, injecting glamour, flying chest-bumps, and unbridled passion into an event that had become a stagnating sideshow to singles. But like a recurring nightmare, each high has led to abysmal lows. Here’s a look at the history of this battle, from their first appearance together to the here and now.
Bhupathi and Paes pair up for the first time to play in a minor tournament.
Game over: The Lee-Hesh story is one of politics, passion, love, hate and intrigue. Photo: Lucas Dawson/Getty Images
Lee (Leander)-Hesh (Mahesh) compete at the Olympics for the first time together, but lose in the second round. Paes goes on to make history in the singles event, winning India’s first individual medal at the Olympics, a bronze, in 44 years.
The duo reach the semi-finals of the US Open.
The pairing begins to gel—they reach the semi-finals of the US Open, the Australian Open and the French Open.
A breakthrough year for the pair. They make it to the finals of all four Slams, the first Indian pair to do so. The duo win the French Open and Wimbledon, becoming the first doubles team from India to win a Slam. They reach the No. 1 ranking in men’s doubles.
Bhupathi is in recovery after a shoulder surgery in late 1999. Paes hints that he’s unhappy with the timing of the surgery because this means Bhupathi will not partner him in the the Challenger Series, a national-level tournament promoted by Paes-En-Sports, a sports management company run by Paes’ father. Paes skips the training sessions of the Indian Davis Cup probables at Tennis Village, an academy run by Bhupathi’s father in Bangalore. Paes-En-Sports signs up the new national tennis champion Sunil Kumar Sipaeya.
Paes’ father announces the break-up of Paes and Bhupathi, citing “lack of trust”. Paes also blames Bhupathi’s coach Enrico Piperno for the split.
The duo reunite for the Olympics but lose in the second round. But they go on to win four titles, including a second French Open. Stories surface of a physical fight between the two over a woman at the Chennai Open. Neither denies or confirms this. Somehow, the partnership survives.
After winning the Chennai Open again, the pair have a disastrous season. Bhupathi ends the partnership. “It is no secret that our performance has dipped significantly,” Bhupathi says at a press conference. “We have lost in the first round of five of the last six Grand Slams, always to unseeded teams ranked well below us… Such early exits indicate some deeper performance-related problems. We both felt that perhaps a change would reinvigorate us and rejuvenate our playing careers.” Bhupathi goes on to win the US Open with Max Mirnyi. Paes and Bhupathi reunite for the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, and win gold. They play with different partners on the circuit, but together when they have to represent India in a tournament.
The duo lose in the bronze medal play-off at the Athens Olympics.
Bhupathi wants to withdraw from the Asian Games at Doha because he feels his on-off partnership with Paes is not working. He says that unless he and Paes stick together for a full season, they have no chance at major tournaments like the Olympics. Paes convinces him to play at the Asian Games, and then blames him for their loss in the first round in the men’s doubles team event. “I just feel that Hesh (Bhupathi) should be honest with himself, his injuries and his tennis,” Paes says at a press conference after the loss. “My job, not only as a player but also as a captain, is to choose the best team to win medals and unfortunately with that (Bhupathi’s) performance we have to do a rethink.” They eventually go on to win gold in the individual men’s doubles. In the post-win press conference, it is Bhupathi’s turn to hit back. “I have been living with his comments for the last 12 years. I am hurt,” Bhupathi says. “Hopefully, this is the last one since we stopped playing together now,” he says.
They reunite for the Beijing Olympics, and lose in the quarter-final. Prior to the Games, Bhupathi had asked to be paired with Rohan Bopanna. “It’s just too late to play with Leander,” Bhupathi says. “He has made his plans clear for the lead-up to the Olympics, that he will play with his new partner Lukas Dlouhy so that he can get enough points to make it into the Shanghai Masters. That means he doesn’t want to prepare with me for the Olympics. We have been assigned for just a week’s training in Mumbai, that too in the middle of the monsoons. If the Aita (All India Tennis Association) doesn’t want to take things seriously, then they can do whatever they like”.
Lee-Hesh continue to play together in the Davis Cup, and in other tournaments representing India; they win bronze at the XIX Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi.
Back in style with the Olympics in mind, the duo compete in the US Open, their first Slam together since 2002. They win three ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) titles, make it to the final of the Australian Open and move to the top of the world rankings yet again. “We try to make each other look good rather than compete against each other now,” Paes says. “Now we also look at giving each other space and time to grow as individuals.” It doesn’t last. It never does. By the end of the year Paes says he wants to play with a younger partner since both he and Bhupathi are ageing. Bhupathi says he has been “stabbed in the back”.
Bopanna partners with Bhupathi keeping the Olympics in mind. Aita orders Bhupathi and Paes to play together at the Olympics. Both Bopanna and Bhupathi refuse to partner Paes. “We have worked tirelessly on our pairing,” they say in a joint statement, “choosing to break winning partnerships and put aside personal interests to combine forces to represent the nation. To not send one of the best tennis teams in the world to the Olympics and to instead nominate one that has had four previous unsuccessful attempts fails to put the interests of the nation first.” After days of fighting, a compromise is reached: Bhupathi will partner Bopanna for the Olympics, and Paes will partner the low-ranked tyro Vishnu Vardhan, as well as Sania Mirza for the mixed doubles. Mirza, who won the 2012 French Open mixed doubles with Bhupathi, is not happy. She has the last word: “As an Indian woman belonging to the 21st century, what I find disillusioning is the humiliating manner in which I was put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis.”