Mahesh Bhupathi speaks the way he plays tennis. The 36-year-old chooses his strokes (read words) carefully. Sometimes, the answer comes in a quick monosyllable, like an overhead smash; or it’s a forehand down the line—a sharp retort delivered with a straight face; and then there is the aggressive volley, when he cuts our question midway before we can get into his comfort zone, leaving us struggling to set the pace for the interview.
Comfort food: Bhupathi has tried different cuisines from all over the world but still prefers a plain dosa over all else. Jayachandran/Mint
After three weeks of negotiation on the meeting venue—the choices being Taj Lands End in Bandra, Mumbai, and his Bandra office—we settle for the latter owing to the heightened security and number of permissions required to shoot in a luxury hotel. It’s a Friday; Bhupathi’s Globosport business office wears a deserted look because it’s a holiday. The 6ft 2 inches tall athlete breezes in 15 minutes past the appointed time and showers us with effusive apologies for making us wait. We do the same, sharing our feeling of guilt for dragging him to office on a holiday.
Bhupathi says he doesn’t mind working on holidays—his role as an entrepreneur demands it. After all, he travels 40 weeks in a year for tennis tournaments.
The meeting takes place two weeks before the start of the Chennai Open on 3 January, which he and doubles partner Leander Paes went on to win. The duo, who famously got together on the professional circuit after nine years for the Chennai event, will also play in the Australian Open starting Monday.
“There is a friendship deep down and there is respect that has grown over the years,” Bhupathi says of his relationship with Paes. “The maturity and respect has brought the friendship back.”
While Bhupathi, who has won 11 Grand Slam doubles and mixed doubles titles with different partners, has been in the news for developments in his professional and personal life—the Chennai Open win, an upcoming wedding to Bollywood actor Lara Dutta next month—his sports and celebrity management company, Globosport India Pvt. Ltd, is also diversifying steadily. Last year, the company moved into areas such as television and film content production, new media, casting for films and public relations. The strategy, Bhupathi says, is to exploit the long-term relationships the company has built with celebrities, for shows for a “win-win” result. The diversifications have also attracted investor attention—Globosport got funding of under $7 million (around Rs 31.6 crore) for a 10% equity dilution.
Under Big Daddy Productions, Globosport launched Making the Cut in 2009, a television search for India’s most talented designer and next supermodel. Season 2 of Making the Cut is currently on air on MTV. There’s also The Pitch—a business reality show with Boman Irani, currently on air on UTV Bloomberg. In the offing is a movie Chalo Dilli starring fiancée Dutta with Vinay Pathak, with a possible April-May release.
Globosport has also partnered with Soundarya Rajinikanth’s Ocher Studios to get a slice of the action in the buzzing southern market. “Celebrities are not stars, but gods down south,” says Bhupathi, whose company has also signed up acting talent such as R. Madhavan, Nag Chaitanya and Trisha.
It’s not been an easy eight-year ride for Bhupathi’s business dream. What started initially as a sports management initiative—they had names such as tennis player Sania Mirza and badminton star Saina Nehwal on their rolls at one point—now has few names from the athletic world, notably rising talent Somdev Devvarman. “The business of celebrity management is getting highly unscalable,” admits Bhupathi.
That’s the reason, he says, they have stayed off the Indian Premier League (IPL) bandwagon. “Cricketers require a hefty fee and we don’t believe in taking up that kind of liability. Also, cricketers have suffered in the endorsement business with IPL. Brands feel they are better off sponsoring a team where they can get four-five players than one single cricketer,” he says.
Globosport’s core business, the Rs 1,500-crore celebrity management industry, is highly competitive. There are five serious players in the market, says Bhupathi. “While they compete for new talent, brand marketeers see no differentiation between two stars and pick them up on their availability and price. It’s a price-sensitive market. If you charge more, then another celebrity will come in and take the deal away. For instance, a big shampoo brand may be negotiating with Katrina (Kaif) or Kareena (Kapoor). It turns into a price war. Whichever girl is willing to go as per what the brand wants to spend becomes the face of the brand.”
Besides being a tennis star and entrepreneur, Bhupathi takes his role as a tennis mentor seriously. The Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academies was launched in 2005 to professionalize tennis coaching in India. The company has tied up with schools, such as the Ryan Group of Institutions and Jubilee Hills Public School in Hyderabad, to make the game accessible to schoolchildren. It is also expanding the 30-strong chain in India and West Asia. The centres, which have 7,000-10,000 aspirants at any given point, have produced players such as Yuki Bhambri, junior Australian Open champion, and Kyra Shroff, a silver medallist at the Commonwealth Youth Games.
Explains Bhupathi: “Tennis is still a young sport and land is sold at a premium. We have a billion-plus population and not enough infrastructure. But a bunch of our academies today target schools, and set up practice after school hours. That should hopefully take away the elitist perception (the sport has).” He tries to open a new academy every few months. “Obviously, I will have my hands full when I retire,” he says, with a hint of a smile.