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June 5, 1999

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Perfect pair

Dhritiman Hui

Indian sport seems to be inspired by anomalies. In a team sport like cricket, where results are based on synergy, a single man decides which way the game will go with his brilliance with the willow, whilst in a sport like tennis, which is dependent on individual excellence, two Indians seem to have their best moments only when they partner each other on court.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati have both rejected the lineage of subtlety and art that their forefathers have left behind. Those deft touches, sublime slices and arched lobs, which the Krishnans and Amritrajs would use to agonize their beleaguered western counterparts, seem to be part of a forgotten tennis heritage that these two celebrate with the type of power play that is more en vogue with the brand of tennis that modern day brat packs use on the world circuit.

Leander is a bundle of unconfined, unbridled energy, uninhibited strokeplay. His play is marked by a restlessness, but beneath the superficial mayhem that clouds the surface, lies a mind that is constantly trying to out-think, surprise the opponent, rather than outslug him. But a fallacy would emerge when he used to lose that element of surprise. Remember the U S Open second round match against Agassi? Paes raced to a one set and five match-points lead, and then lost all but two games as Agassi started predicting the unpredictability that Paes had generated during his moments of domination on court.

Thankfully, Leander seems to be overcoming his Achilles heel. Nowadays, he bases his game on a solid approach, good percentage tennis that will help him tire out more talented opponents, after which he can close out the match with his ebullient ground strokes. The results are showing his first ATP title at the Hall of Fame tournament, and then successive wins over world no.1 Sampras; deposed clay court monarch, Sergei Bruguera; and Marc Rosset - probably the best two weeks of his sporting life.

Leander attributes his speed to his mother, who was a basketball player at the national level, and his diligence towards the sport to his father, an India Olympic hockey player, and the fact that they were never a rich family. But things are different these days. Leander is man of significant material wealth to take initiative in matters that were previously out of his hands. He chose to become an NRI and shift base to Orlando, Florida, for the simple reason that India lacked sufficient tennis facilities.

Mahesh is diametrically opposite. Soft-spoken to an extreme. The hesitant smile and the shy, incomplete gestures suggest that the sobriquet (Boom Boom Bhupati) he acquired during his successful Grand Slam doubles quest at Roland Garros is a total misnomer. Teaming up with Rika Hiraki of Japan, the 23-year-old brought home India's first Grand Slam crown. At his 'boom boom' best, he reportedly raked in 2,01,522 dollars this season, apart from getting more from All India Tennis Association and the Delhi Tennis Association. Nowadays, Bhupathi seems to have acquired a name for himself on the singles fast track in the metropolitan cities of the country.

There is a story behind the single earring the pair sport. Leander and Bhupathi decided that if they qualified for the Olympics, they would either shave their heads or pierce an ear. Thankfully, they settled for the latter.

The NRI kid started wielding the racquet at the age of three and found his true calling almost immediately . He went on to become a champion in the University of Mississippi, and that was the final heave ho he needed to turn completely professional. When asked about his other interests in college, wearing a faintly perplexed look on his face, the gentle giant apparently replied, "Uh, you mean besides Physical Education?"

Paes and Bhupathi's best year in terms of consistency seems to be 1998. Just glance over their results:

Tournament Result Points gained
Paris Indoors Super 9 Winner 474 (370 + 104)
Rome Italian Open Super 9 Winner 436 (370 + 66)
US Open Semi Finalist 363 (325 + 38)
French Open Semi Finalist 345 (325 + 20)
Australian Open Semi Finalist 341 (325 + 16)
Stuttgart Super 9 Finalist 313 (265 + 48)
Dubai Open Winner 280 (220 + 60)
Qatar Open (Doha) Winner 242 (220 + 22)
Shanghai Open Winner 195 (150 + 45)
Toronto Super 9 Semi Finalist 181 (180 + 21)
Singapore Open Finalist 179 (175 + 4)
Monte Carlo Super 9 Semi Finalist 169 (160 + 9)
Chennai Open Winner 165 (160 + 5)
Queen's Stella Artois Semi Finalist 92 ( 90 + 2)
Wimbledon Round 2 47 ( 41 + 6)
Lipton Key Biscayne Super 9 Round 1 1
New Haven Pilot Pen Round 2 1

As a team, their performance graph seems to have dipped towards the last two months of last year. One cause they attributed that to is simple tiredness and fatigue from having jetted around the world for 365 days of the year. Paes reckoned, as he thought positively after a tournament, that the more they played with each other, the more they understood each other's game, the more they could synchronize their efforts.

With the corpse of the defeat at the World Doubles Championship towards the end of 1998 still warm, Paes and Bhupathi started their still unsuccessful quest for their first Grand Slam crown beside the Yarra river at Melbourne. After struggling with their form for the first three rounds, everything seemed to be falling into place for the pair to fulfill their first new year's resolution - winning a Grand Slam crown. But they crashed in the finals.

The number one doubles spot meanwhile came and landed straight into their lap after this setback. This probably gave them just a little bit more to prove, and with a top seed billing in practically all the tournaments, they notched up the following results in 1999:

Tournament Dated Result Points
Qatar Open (Doha) Jan/10/00 Round1 1
Australian Open Jan/31/00 Finalist 658 (552 + 106)
Dubai Open Feb/14/00 Quarter F 62 ( 50 + 12)
Indian Wells Super 9 Mar/14/00 Semi F 196 (160 + 36)
Lipton Key Biscayne S-9 Mar/29/00 Round 2 1
Chennai Open Apr/12/99 Winner 173 (160 + 13)
Monte Carlo S-9 Apr/26/00 Round 2 1

While both seemed to have been blessed with a fair amount of articulateness, they seem to talk best with their racquets. The grapevine was in a tizzy with rumours of an impending rift between them just prior to the tournament at Madras, but the top seeds and defending champions pushed all news of their rift off the sports pages by winning the Gold Flake trophy. Throughout the tournament, with measured soundbites, they explained how being together for ages on end could easily lead to the odd misunderstanding, even between the best of friends. Friends, who are, when reports last came in, just one step away from realizing their second resolution for the year, and finally putting a credible stamp of the authority of Indian tennis on the international tennis circuit.

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