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Lee and Hesh - what a mess

Oindrila Mukherjee

Updated: July 6, 2012, 5:01 PM IST
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So this blog is supposed to review changes in India over the past decade. But of course there are some things that don't change.

On May 31, 2000, when I was working with The Statesman in Calcutta, I wrote an article called "Divided They Fall?" in the sports supplement. It was a lament on the break up of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, after a stellar year where they reached the finals of all four Grand Slams, the first team to do so since 1952. They won three Slams that year and became the number one-ranked team in the world. Tennis pundits across the world were seriously contemplating the question - was this the best doubles team the world had ever seen?

I read my article the other day, to refresh my memory. At the time the Paes team was displeased with Enrico Piperno, Bhupathi's coach, for allegedly fuelling Bhupathi's insecurities about the more high profile and senior player on the team. Despite repeated requests, they could not get Bhupathi to fire Rico. Bhupathi on the other hand was reported to be quite upset because Paes only congratulated him at an airport on his reaching number one. When Bhupathi had shoulder surgery, Paes was apparently informed through a third party. It was also reported that Bhupathi initially withdrew from a tournament in Indianapolis in 1999, thinking he needed rehab for an abdomen injury. Paes entered the draw with someone else, and then Bhupathi decided to play after all, with a different partner. These misunderstandings came to a head at the end of that year, when Paes was reported to have given Bhupathi an ultimatum: Rico or me. Taken out of context, the two sound less like professional athletes than a pair of possessive, neurotic lovers. You know the type.

When the duo split up in 2000, I wrote in my article that they had cheated millions of Indians who would now no longer get to see Ind/Ind on the scoreboard. It seemed like such a waste of potential. Indian tennis fans fantasized about what they could have accomplished together, the records they could have broken. And what we felt was a deep sense of loss.

Twelve years on, it seems astonishing to me that I'm writing about this again. It's like the rest of us have grown up in this time, but not these two. They're still acting like quarrelling lovers. Or bitter exes.

I'm not going to recount all the reasons that Bopanna and Bhupathi have cited for not wanting to play with Paes in the Olympics because if you're reading this you probably already know what they are. But there are a few observations I must make.
First, both Paes and Bhupathi are treated as demigods in India. In a recent interview with Bhupathi's father in law, actor Lara Dutta's father, Mr LK Dutta said, "Mahesh is one of the best tennis players in the world." In another recent interview in South Asia Journal with Tennis Channel reporter Matt Cronin, Paes said, "I had the motivation to get to number one and so I did." Now, if you didn't follow tennis at all and you read these comments, you might think, India has two of the best tennis players in the world. How come I've never heard of them?

Let me assure everyone that I think very highly of both these players' abilities as doubles specialists. In particular, Leander, who is looked up to by other doubles players, both past and present, and tennis analysts who follow the game. He is widely acknowledged as one of the best athletes to play doubles tennis ever. The way he's fought for India in Davis Cup matches, his Bronze medal that came impressively in singles play at the Atlanta Olympics, and the career Grand Slam he completed this year in doubles, are all testimony to his skills and his heart. Bhupathi, also, has done India proud. As a dedicated tennis fan, I watch doubles whenever I can. Doubles is a joy to watch, and I wish often that it would get more prominence in the world of tennis.

But, it doesn't matter what I think or, indeed, what other doubles specialists think. The fact is that doubles is simply not as important as singles in the scheme of things. The top guys rarely play doubles, and when they do, they often win! That's why Federer won the doubles gold at the Beijing Olympics, not the Bryan brothers or any other doubles specialists. Rafa Nadal and even Djokovic are pretty good doubles players. If they played seriously, regularly, the specialists wouldn't stand a chance. But the Nadals and Federers of the world prefer to focus their energy and time on singles. Sometimes, when a top doubles player reaches a single semifinal or final, he or she withdraws from the doubles. Because there's a lot more money and prestige in singles.

In recent years, doubles matches have been shortened from five to three set contests, and further to two sets and a super tiebreak. Why? Because spectators - and therefore organisers - don't want to waste too much time on them. At this year's Wimbledon, the total amount of prize money available for singles play is $18.07 million. The total prize money available for doubles play is $3.47 million, while the prize money available for mixed doubles play is just $516,846. Keep in mind that doubles players have to split all the prize money they get.
Make no mistake. Novak Djokovic is the best player in the world. Max Mirny of Belarus (Er, who, you ask? Exactly) is, currently, the best doubles player in the world. Unfortunately, this qualification is necessary to put things in perspective for Indian sports fans who tend to go overboard in their adulation of a few iconic stars.

When I look at my old article, where I whined about the two not playing together for India, I feel some remorse. Because really, who says they have to play together? Tennis is not a team sport, and doubles pairings certainly don't have to come from the same nation. Individual players are free to pair up with whomever they choose. So Paes and Bhupathi had a great run, but then they didn't want to play together. They owed us nothing. And were free to go their separate ways. The fact is that both of them continued to win titles with other partners, and as a nation, we were and should be proud of them for that. They didn't cheat us, we just didn't know the rules.

And so we - or I at any rate - got used to seeing them on opposite sides of the net, with different partners. Even though it's not easy to get used to Leander's partnership, since he's had 87 of them over 20 years. Still, he's such a gifted player with those magical hands around the net and those amazing reflexes, that he - and Bhupathi - remained on the top of doubles tennis all these years. I was content.

But then, like former lovers who had never really gotten over one another, they reunited at the start of 2011. I remember watching the trophy presentation at the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London in November 2010, where the champions, the Bryan brothers, warned the world that the Indian Express were about to stage a comeback. It was a big deal. And like parents of a couple that had split up but never should have, we Indians rejoiced. Never mind that it was a strategic ploy to form an effective doubles team. That was exactly what we all wanted anyway. And when the duo reached the Australian Open final right away, we were ecstatic. They belonged together.

But the relationship seems toxic. Can't stay apart, can't stay together. By the end of the year not only had they split up again, but this time the bitterness was escalated. Here's what really happened according to some tennis journalists. Paes split up with Bhupathi, saying they were too old to play together, and asked Bopanna to play with him. But, apparently he reassured Bhupathi that they would still pair up for the Olympics. Now Bopanna had split up the very successful Indo Pak Express in the hope that he'd get to play in the Olympics with Paes. But Bhupathi informed Bopanna that Paes had no intention of doing that. So Bopanna dumped Paes and paired up with Bhupathi, leaving Paes without a partner. The rest is Indian Olympic history. Sigh.

There is one exception to the tennis is an individual sport rule. The Olympics. Well, there's also Davis Cup, but that's given even less importance by most players than doubles, so we won't go into that right now. But the Olympics? Surely, India's iconic athletes, among its best ever, do have some obligation to report for duty when called up there? After all, we were informed by the AITA that Paes and Bhupathi have been receiving $ 6000 a month to train. Keep in mind, folks, that the two walkers Basant Bahadur Rana and Irfan KT do not have proper shoes to train in. I have a suggestion for the AITA. How about reducing the tennis players' monthly training "stipend" to say, $5750, and giving the other $250 to the walkers so they can get themselves a pair of shoes? Don't worry Indians, this pay cut won't harm our chances of winning an Olympic medal in tennis at London. Because guess what? No one's winning anything in that sport.

Do you really expect Leander Paes and inexperienced world number 200 Vishnu Vardhan to win a medal? Bhupathi has crashed out of Wimbledon in both the mixed (with Mirza our other Olympian) and in men's doubles (with Bopanna). After all the noise they made about playing together or not at all till death do us part etc., they failed to reach the quarter finals. Don't blame them. Paes and Stepanek crashed out too. How would you fare with this kind of pressure and these distractions?

But the fact is that when Bhupathi and Bopanna got together last year, they should have resolved to win a major, raise their rankings, and generally, "show him" (Paes). Then, they would have automatically qualified into the Olympics, and could have actually been in a position to dictate terms. Put their money where their mouths are. But, unfortunately for them - this is sport - it didn't happen. Paes got in, they didn't.

It's baffling to see how two athletes can blackmail sporting organisations in the country and refuse to play in the Olympics if their demands aren't met. At one point of course, Paes also put his foot down and refused to play with a junior player. Mirza is now upset at having been used as bait to lure Paes to play with Vardhan. Seriously, which of these teams are you putting your money on for the Olympics starting in 3 weeks?
International tennis journalists have been enjoying a good laugh over the Indian Olympic team fiasco. Can you keep Paes with the tennis hijinks in India? Is one example of some of the tweets and headlines I've come across in the past few weeks, by reputed analysts. It's a pity that a nation that hardly ever wins any Olympic medals has become the butt of jokes thanks to its lack of professionalism and petulant star tantrums.

While the AITA was going back and forth on it decisions - first Bhupathi had to play with Paes, then he could play with Bopanna, etc. -- it seemed to have forgotten the easiest solution of all.
Paes and Bhupathi are nearing forty. Even with their superhuman skills they can't play forever. We need to nurture younger players, boost their confidence, give them experience. We need to think about the future of Indian tennis. The AITA could have simply said, Let's send Vishnu Vardhan and Yuki Bhambri (ranked 219 in the world, he recently won his first ATP Challenger event.) Paes, Bhupathi and Bopanna can all stay home and rehearse for their Bollywood films.

But that didn't happen because in India we love to pander to the egos of our superstars. Bhupathi and Bopanna get to play together. Paes has to play with Vardhan but he gets to play mixed with Sania, and is shortlisted to carry the flag. So all three of them should be fairly satisfied. Personally, I'm just happy for Vishnu Vardhan who gets to experience the Olympics with a very senior player. As for medals, I'll be rooting for whoever's playing for Spain.

Enough on tennis for now. Watch for my next piece on Paes and Bhupathi's relationship in circa 2020, when they will be nearing 50 and probably receiving a million a month to train for the Istanbul/Tokyo/Madrid Olympics.

First Published: July 6, 2012, 5:01 PM IST

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