Saturday, August 14, 2004

Deadly duo

One is a dashing debonair player who is as much in the news for his love games as for his commitment to tennis. The other too is known for his bounce on and off the court. Sharing a see-saw relationship but a force to reckon with when together, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are joining hands to give their best shot at Athens. M.S. Unnikrishnan on the aces they serve and their personal lives which grab headlines.

Mahesh Bhupathi

Leander Paes

Mahesh Bhupathi

When two players of almost identical talent and charisma get together, with matching sun signs to boot, sparks fly. The coming together of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi — their third coming, in fact — augurs well for India’s Olympic hopes. If there’s any sport in which India aims a sure shot at Athens, it’s tennis.

Leander and Mahesh have reinforced this belief after they lifted the $ 2.5-million ATP Masters title in Toronto recently.

Though they fell at the quarter-final stage of the ATP tournament at Cincinatti a few days later, the Indian pair made it loud and clear, for their critics to hear, that they had begun their Olympic preparation in right earnest. Both Geminians, Leander and Mahesh, separated by just a year in age (Leander is ’73 born and Mahesh ’74), seem to strike up amazing wavelength and rapport whenever they reunite, after long separations. They work up instant rhythm and synergy on court, and it’s difficult to believe that they have been playing with different partners for the past 27 months.

"We are jelling the way we used to. It gives us a lot of confidence," declared Leander after the Toronto triumph. Mahesh silenced the critics, who questioned the duo’s decision to join hands for their Olympic campaign when the Athens games were just a few days away, with the cryptic remark: "We know what we are doing. Leave the Olympic preparation to us." Is Ramanathan Krishnan listening?

Though Leander and Mahesh had gone their separate ways, they kept themselves busy, playing with different partners, winning championships at regular intervals. So the long separation did not really make much of a difference, as far as their tennis was concerned.

Both Leander and Mahesh hail from respectable sporting backgrounds. Leander is the son of former hockey Olympian Dr Vece Paes and basketball player Jennifer Paes. It was due to Vece’s single-minded pursuit that Leander could make his mark as a tennis player. As a child, Leander was restless and energetic, and took to sport like a duck to water. He played football and had the potential of becoming an outstanding footballer, but for a knee injury.

The injury ruled out body-contact sports for Leander. Vece put him through the paces in tennis. And Leander made a quick start in the sport. He was enrolled in the Britannia-Amritraj Tennis (BAT) Academy in Chennai, where he learnt all about tennis under the watchful eyes of Vijay and Anand Amritraj, and their tough taskmaster mother Maggy.

Leander broke away from the BAT academy when he turned 16, to try his luck in the tough world of pro tennis. It was a difficult decision. But Vece stuck his neck out, encouraged by the sage advise of former Indian Davis Cup captain Naresh Kumar. The boy was thrown at the deep end, as it were, but Leander learnt his lessons fast. The potential was all too evident when he won the junior Wimbledon singles title at the age of 18 years. He turned pro in 1992, but the major turnaround came when Naresh Kumar, the Davis Cup non-playing captain, blooded him for the crucial doubles rubber against Japan at Chandigarh in 1990. Leander has been the fulcrum of the Indian Davis Cup conquests ever since. Many are those memorable Davis Cup victories notched up on the strength of Leander’s power game.

In contrast to the flamboyant Leander, Mahesh comes across as a serious, reserved player, who is now actively involved in the running of the Bhupathi Tennis Village in Bangalore. The Academy has been imparting coaching by modern methods to budding talented players. The All-India Tennis Association has acknowledged the pioneering role being played by the Bhupathis in the promotion of tennis.

Globesport, the sports management company floated by the Bhupathis, has also been playing a vital role in sports promotion. If Sania Mirza—the lone Indian to win the junior Wimbledon girls doubles title— has emerged as a player of substance, it was due to the support rendered by Globesport.

Mahesh has been giving coaching tips to Sania and taking a keen interest in her career. He firmly believes that she has a great future ahead of her. And the Hyderabadi swears by the Bhupathis for her evolution as the best woman tennis player in the country, with the potential to make it big in the women's circuit.

Mahesh has also taken a few other promising players under his wings, notably Rohan Bopanna, the Davis Cupper who has taken quick strides under the guidance of the Bhupathis.
The gangling Mahesh cut his Davis Cup teeth when he gave an exhilarating performance against Croatia, led by Goran Ivanisevic, in New Delhi in the mid 1990s. Ever since, he has been a permanent fixture of the Indian team. Leander and Mahesh still rule the Davis Cup roost as a younger lot has not been able to measure upto them. Mahesh has won titles in Grand Slam tourneys—Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open—either in the doubles or in the mixed doubles. When he split with Leander, Mahesh made a successful partnership with Max Mirny. They beat Leander and partner David Rikil in their own game, which made the Indian pair do a rethink about their parting.

Mahesh, who turned professional in 1995, climbed to the number one slot in doubles ranking in 1999. Though no mean player in singles, Mahesh has opted to play on his strength—doubles—and is at present ranked No 4. He has raked in over $ 3 million in prize money alone, not counting his endorsements. And in the coming years, he wants to play the role of a beacon to brighten up the career of budding players.

Ironically, however, he has not been considered for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, the highest sporting honour given to the greatest achiever by the government, on the plea that Grand Slam tournaments are not 'recognised'.

Though Mahesh comes from a tennis background — his father Krishna Bhupathi was a reputed national-level player — he came of age only when he teamed up with Leander. Leander was famous, and had a rosy future ahead of him when he decided to team up with Mahesh in the doubles circuit. No wonder Vece had not been too keen on Leander making Mahesh his partner in the Grand Slam circuit.

But Leander could sense the spark of talent hidden in Mahesh, and the events that unfolded over the years only reinforced the remarkable tennis acumen both the players possessed. Together, the pair have won over two dozen titles. In 1999, they went on to win the French Open and Wimbledon doubles crowns, and were finalists at the Australian Open and the US Open.

Mahesh has had the distinction of winning the first Grand Slam title, ahead of Leander, when he partnered Rika Hiraki of Japan to annex the French Open mixed doubles crown in 1998. But Leander’s master stroke came a few years later, when he teamed up with the legendary Martina Navratilova and created a sensation in the tennis world. That Leander is a respected player the world over was evident when he was recovering from the brain lesion treatment. A number of get-well messages poured in from all over the world.

Leander’s contribution to Indian tennis is unmatched. When he won that rare tennis bronze in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, India bagged their only Olympic bronze in 44 years. Before Leander, wrestler Kasba Yadav had fetched India’s lone individual Olympic medal at Helsinki in 1952.

Leander was recently in the news for an entirely difference reason. Hindi film actress Mahima Chaudhary raised the hackles of tennis watchers when she accused Leander of ‘two-timing’ her. She said she was in the ‘dark’ about Leander’s ‘affair’ with model-turned-Art of Living preacher Rhea Pillai (also the estranged wife of actor Sanjay Dutt), even though the tennis ace had been professing his undying love for her. Leander, in fact, went to the extent of rolling out a ‘love carpet’ when Mahima landed in a chopper to attend the marriage of the son of the Sahara Group boss. Well, Leander watchers were amused, and not amused. People who follow the tennis career of Leander do not attach much significance to his dalliances with pretty damsels.

Based at Orlando, Florida, Leander, being single and famous, is to women what a flame is to moths. Leander’s playboy image and colourful life story has been an open book.

He has never tried to hide his women from media glare. He used to flaunt them, rather. Though Leander’s credo has been to live it to the hilt, he has never taken his tennis for granted. Tennis always got precedence over his love games. His track record speaks about his commitment to the game, and the country’s honour. But when Mahima issued an open "get-well-letter" to Leander when the tennis ace was recovering from a brain lesion surgery in the US last September, many thought that ‘this was it.’ But once on his feet, up and about, Leander was back to his old jolly good ways.

Mahesh too was no less flirtatious when he was single and famous. But he was very discreet about his relationships. His name was linked to many famous models, the most notable being Anupama Verma. But after he found his soulmate in model Sweta Jaishankar, wedding bells chimed. And it was during the church ceremony that many realised that Mahesh, like Leander, was a Christian. After marriage, Mahesh has been focusing on his tennis, like the good old days.

When Leander and Mahesh were playing together in the Grand Slam circuit, their names were connected with many celebs. Their first split, in fact, was attributed to their off-court dalliances.

Tennis stars courting film actresses is nothing new. Vijay Amritraj did it. Many others before him did it too. But Vijay had always maintained a polished image and kept a discreet distance, retaining his reputation as well as charm. Brother Anand, however, was seen as a Casanova.

But nothing like Leander’s go-getting ways. He achieved fame, success and money at a very young age, and at a far greater volume than his predecessors. Leander has logged over $3.3 million in prize money, outside of endorsements and other earnings. He earned Rs 25 lakh on a single day in New Delhi after he returned with the bronze medal from Atlanta.

In spite of his playboy image, Leander has always put the game above self. He has spectacular accomplishments in the Davis Cup to his credit. He’s possessed with a rare passion while playing for the country. Despite their personal differences, Leander and Mahesh have a unique chemistry when they join hands to play for the country. Leander and Mahesh raised their game to sublime levels at Busan, to win the doubles and team golds in the Asian Games 2002.

If Leander and Mahesh bring home that elusive gold from Athens, it would be a milestone for the duo as well as for the nation.