The 17-year-old Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi fight that will leave us scarred

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have been fighting for so long that all the good memories are fading... we can only hope their paths don’t cross


Davis Cup team captain Mahesh Bhupathi (centre) with Leander Paes (left). Photo: PTI.
Davis Cup team captain Mahesh Bhupathi (centre) with Leander Paes (left). Photo: PTI.

Superstar squabbles are usually fun. If you’re emotionally invested, you pick a camp and stick with it: Sourav Ganguly was great, Greg Chappell was terrible (or the other way around, depending on which camp you were in...but trust me, Ganguly was great and Chappell was terrible).

When the protagonists aren’t people you care about deeply , these spats provide passing entertainment…as in the recent “Virat Kohli versus Australia” Test series.

Then there’s the Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi saga. Just for some context, Seinfeld ran for nine years, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. played out for 10. Paes and Bhupathi have now been fighting for 17 years, and unlike the two American sitcoms, reruns of these episodes are becoming unbearable.

For those who missed it, the latest chapter of the big fight took place on the sidelines of the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan. Bhupathi, now the non-playing captain, picked Paes in the six-man squad, but not in the final four. Paes slammed Bhupathi for insulting him. Bhupathi insisted he had been clear with Paes all along. The fight moved from press conferences to Facebook and Twitter.

Ramkumar Ramanathan. Photo: AFP
Ramkumar Ramanathan. Photo: AFP

Right now, it’s easier to point fingers at Paes—the WhatsApp exchange Bhupathi shared does suggest Paes wasn’t taken completely by surprise. Also, he left the squad one day into the tie, and that’s something that will never look good, no matter what spin you put on it. But when Bhupathi questions Paes’ very public commitment to the country and the flag in a Facebook post…well, you actually don’t know how to react to that.

Memories of their partnership are fading fast anyway. For four years, they represented the best that Indian sport had to offer. The skill, the passion, Paes’ volleys at the net, Bhupathi’s monster backhand from the baseline…they travelled the globe, took on the best in the world, and repeatedly came out on top. As Indians, we were used to our sporting success in small, irregular doses. A hockey medal here, an overseas Test victory there. It was the surprise factor we enjoyed the most. Paes and Bhupathi changed that.

In a decade or two, all we will be left with are the chest bumps. And we won’t be quite sure if they were genuinely celebrating or just trying to injure each other.

Rohan Bopanna (left) celebrating with partner Sriram Balaji. Photo: Aijaz Rahi/AP
Rohan Bopanna (left) celebrating with partner Sriram Balaji. Photo: Aijaz Rahi/AP

Usually, the only endgame for a situation like this is when the players in question retire. But in this case, one has retired and moved on to the administrative side of the sport, and the other doesn’t look like he will ever retire. There’s no point asking them to be grown-ups about it either. Each one believes, strongly, that he has been wronged. And that when the dust settles, he will come out looking like the good guy.

The reality is that when they’re done with this mud-fight, they’ll both be left really dirty. That, at the heart of this feud, there’s only darkness.

Bhupathi has made it clear that Paes is done as long as he’s in charge. “There’s a new train in town,” he writes in his Facebook post, and Paes won’t find a spot on it.

This at least should provide temporary relief from the sniping. Yup, that’s the best we can do now…hope and pray their paths don’t cross, like children dealing with angry, divorced parents. Just make sure they stay away from each other, or we’ll be left with the scars.

Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.

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