Bikash Mohapatra in Chennai
They are back! And how?
A few months ago, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi made a brief attempt -- at the Bangkok Open last September -- at reunification, with the Delhi Commonwealth Games in mind. Both those attempts though ended in failure.
However, the Indian Express duo seemed to have learnt their lessons well. For they did succeed in making an impression in their latest reunion.
A 6-2, 6-7 (3), 10-7 win over the Dutch-American combine of Robin Haase and David Martin gave the Indian pair their fifth Chennai title and their 24th success as a team on the ATP Tour.
It was the pair's first ATP title in seven years -- they last triumphed at the Toronto Masters in 2004. The duo had also not featured in a tour final following their loss at 's-Hertogenbosch in 2008.
"Playing together as a team has paid off," remarked Leander.
"Our experience also helped us a lot in the crunch situations," he added.
It was a tough title to win
The men's doubles event at the Chennai Open seemed like a perfect script, a surefire blockbuster, as they say in Bollywood (rather Kollywood) trade circles.
The cast had been chosen keeping popular tastes in mind.
And the draw ensured a dream climax -- with top seeds (Paes and Bhupathi) supposed to take on the Indo-Pak Express (Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi).
It seemed nothing could go wrong. However, just like most of our movies don't stick to the original script once the shooting commences, there was a change in this case as well.
Bopanna and Qureshi, the finalists at the US Open last year, couldn't enact their parts well. Coming into Chennai with heightened expectations, the duo fell at their second hurdle.
The thespians -- Leander and Mahesh -- however, took charge at this juncture and ensured the end result was something that would remain in the minds of those who watched the show for a considerable time.
There was ample display of theatrics by both players.
And, yes, there were many of those crowd-pleasing moments: the trademark chest bumps, the clenching of fists et al.
Yet, it was a tough title to win.
'We are playing because we are still passionate about the game'
Albeit a memorable one as well. For the Indian Express had last won on home soil back in 2002 -- following three straight titles from 1997-99.
And this title capped a perfect comeback. So was it winning at home after a nine-year gap?
"I wouldn't say the body feels like it felt nine years back," admitted Mahesh, clearly indicating the obvious.
Leander is 37, Mahesh 36.
They don't have many years left in them. At least the body language is not what it used to be. The athleticism, particularly Leander's, is not what it used to be.
And they are no longer the potent force they used to be. The fact that they can still produce has more to do with the mind, one that inspires the body to push itself as far as possible.
"At this stage of our careers we are playing because we are still passionate about the game," explained Leander, adding, "The one advantage that we have is that there is still so much understanding between us."
His partner was in agreement.
"I am sure a lot of people are excited and a lot of tennis fans had been wanting for this to happen for years," he said.
A perfect preparation for the ultimate goal
The win also ensured a perfect preparation for the ultimate goal, the main reason why the Indian Express have joined forces again -- the Australian Open.
In their long and illustrious careers neither Leander nor Mahesh have ever won the men's doubles title at Melbourne Park.
The duo did reach the final in 1999 -- losing in five sets to the Swedish-Australian combination of Jonas Bjorkman and Patrick Rafter.
However, since then all they have two show for their efforts Down Under is one final defeat apiece -- Leander, along with Czech Martin Damm, losing the 2006 decider and Mahesh (alongside Mark Knowles of Bahamas) coming up second best in the 2009 final.
How do they rate their chances this year?
"It's tough to predict," said Leander, adding, "There are a lot of new teams that are playing these days and some of them can be dangerous.
"We actually have to get ourselves prepared to face them."
Mahesh was more optimistic than his partner.
"We are going to do everything we can to win the Australian Open," he said.
"What is important though is the fact that we have had few days of match practice and a few wins under our belt going into Melbourne," he added.
'We are proud of our longevity'
A title at Melbourne, if it happens, will mark another glorious chapter in what has been a hugely successful, albeit controversial partnership.
While the duo played together in Davis Cup on a regular basis, on the tour it has been an on-off partnership since they separated a decade back.
However, whenever they joined forces, they carried forward their legacy with aplomb, reminiscent of their days together.
It's been about a decade-and-a-half since they started playing doubles and the urge to win remains intact.
So, what is it that has kept them going?
"It is certainly because we always have wanted to learn new things," said Leander, in a tad diplomatic tone.
Mahesh was more elaborate and exact in his explanation.
"We are proud of our longevity. But this basically due to two reasons," he explained, adding, "Firstly, we have maintained a good level for the last 14 years.
"Secondly, we have been at the top for so long because not many teams were really able to push us."
'We still have got enough chemistry on the court'
Finally, do they intend to continue their partnership after Melbourne? Or is it just an ad hoc reunion?
"We still have got enough chemistry on the court, and enough maturity," explained Mahesh, adding, "And there is still the will to win.
"So why not?"
His partner though made a cautious response.
"At the end of the day it's a long, tough season. So really can't say," said Leander.
Our persistence though made him share a bit more.
"Let's just take it one at a time and enjoy the moment," he said, adding, "There's no point in looking too far ahead.
"Even when you are playing well, you don't have to over think."
The 37-year-old pointed out that the inability to enjoy each other's success was precisely the reason that made their partnership suffer earlier.
"I think part of the problem we had before was we got so ahead of ourselves that we couldn't enjoy the process," explained Leander, adding, "And that's something I am going to do this time.
"I will just relive the process and enjoy the good things, as also the not so good things."