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Dream Team: Bhupathi and Paes

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Originally published on: 17/08/11 10:39

Dubbed the ‘Indian Express’, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have journeyed through both good and bad times and after nine years apart, the dynamic duo reunited this year over the common goal of bringing Grand Slam and Olympic glory to India.

The nickname was given to them in 1998 by India’s media. “We like the fact that it is a train that is hard working and going through different stops and basically just being along for the journey,” says Paes. 

When the duo announced their plans to reconcile for the 2011 season, it appeared to be a short-term arrangement for the Australian Open – the only doubles major both players are missing from their Grand Slam medals cabinet. However, after a run to the Australian Open final and wins in Chennai and Miami, the partnership has proved to be more than a brief fling.

The pair, currently ranked No.5 in the ATP doubles team rankings, have endured a volatile relationship over the years. For much of the last decade their partnership could have been more aptly described as the ‘Indian Rollercoaster’ rather than the Express.

After growing up together in India, they formed a formidable partnership that peaked in 1999 when they became the first team in the Open Era to reach the final of all four slams, winning in Paris and Wimbledon. A swarm of Indian euphoria followed them wherever they went and in 2001 the men were granted India’s highest honour, the Padma Shri award, in recognition of their distinguished service to the nation.

The pair’s decision to split soon after marked a devastating blow to Indian tennis and for the millions who oozed adoration for the duo who transcended the sport in the bat-and-ball-crazed country.  The exact reason behind their demise remains unknown, but allegations of feuds, conflicting egos, jealousy, and a mutual interest in Bollywood actresses have allegedly played their part.  

Over the past decade the pair have occasionally put their differences aside to represent their country in Davis Cup and at the Olympics, but their relationship was played out in the media like a soap opera of who said what to who.  Their history and refusal to play with each other from time to time is what makes their current reunion all the more surprising. So, has the magic disappeared?

“No it hasn’t,” says Bhupathi. “We were still able to keep it alive to a point by consistently playing a few matches every year but I think we definitely matured as tennis players. We had a brash style of doubles growing up but now we have the brashness and the experience to add to it so we are able to, kind of, set each other up all the time.” Paes adds: “It’s like a sixth sense. It just comes so naturally because we have played together for so long. Also, I think growing up together off the court, we understand each other’s mentalities.”

Both players enjoy taking the dominant role in doubles, the player that steps in and takes control when the pressure is on, but Bhupathi claims he is happy to step aside and let Paes take on that position in their new relationship. “I like to feed him to take over because that’s what he thrives on,” the 36-year-old explains. “When we played with individual partners we were always the leaders in the team but here, obviously, there has to be one leader.”  

While Paes is happy to accept this position, he also believes various scenarios may arise when his partner needs to shoulder the role. “There are some cities that one of us likes to play better in, there are some courts that one of us likes to play better on, and there are some days when you wake up with a 103 fever and you just have to be solid and let Mahesh take over. In the last nine years of us not playing together with the different partners he has had, he has learned to lead more, which makes it a lot more fun.” 

When it is suggested that their interchangeable leadership may become a case of too many chiefs, Paes quickly steps in. “No, no, no. That’s the beauty of being two boys from the same country and growing up together,” he insists. “You can sense who is wanting to lead and you can pick up on things. The fun thing is now we don’t fight it.”

With the 2012 Olympics on the horizon Paes and Bhupathi will be hoping they can replicate their Davis Cup form to bring home the coveted gold medal from London. Paes picked up a singles bronze in Atlanta in 1996 but doubles success at the world’s biggest sporting event has eluded the pair.  “It will be fun,” says Paes. “The fact that it is at Wimbledon and the fact that we have come close twice to getting a medal. “It was a heart-breaker what happened in Athens,” adds the 37-year-old from Calcutta, referring to their 7-6 4-6 16-14 bronze medal match defeat to Croatia’s Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic at the 2004 Games. 

The fire for success still burns bright inside these two champions and they are aware that they must continue to adapt their games to counteract the powerful players that define modern tennis. “Before, we were younger, we were faster, and you could win a point single-handed,” says Paes. “Now we look to set each other up a lot, we look to play dynamic doubles points because the game of doubles has changed a lot too.” Bhupathi echoes those sentiments. “We don’t have the power that these singles players have to compete with them. So we kind of pick our spots and hit our spots and we have to do that to consistently beat them.” 

The future of Paes and Bhupathi may not represent a sure bet but with ten Grand Slam doubles and 13 major mixed doubles titles between them one thing’s for sure – they know how to win.  Each is aware that time spent feuding will eat away at precious opportunities for further success as they reach the twilight years of their careers. And all of India will hold its breath in the hope that their golden boys can keep the Indian Express on track until it reaches its destination – London 2012.

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