A tale of extraordinary champions

Published : Jun 23, 2001 00:00 IST


News item 1: Miami, Florida, May 1994: Jennifer Capriati in compliance with the wishes of her family, voluntarily checked into a Miami Beach rehabilitation facility on May 18 following her arrest on May 16 on charges of marijuana possession.

News item 2: Chennai, August 2000: There seems to be very little hope that Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes will bury all their differences, come together and play with the sort of spirit and skills that saw them win two Grand Slam titles in four final appearances last year.

FALLING into a hole is no big deal. Getting out smiling is. Most of us get into holes at some point or the other in our lives, taking a wrong turn here, another there. And most of us struggle to get out in the face of formidable odds.

In the event, what distinguishes champions is not their ability to steer well clear of holes but the courage and skills which help them climb out of the traps in style.

And, boy, did Jennifer Capriati and the world beating Indian doubles pair, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, dig a hole for themselves! So big was the chasm into which these champions fell that few might have expected to see them do anything of significance on a big stage ever again.

If Capriati's dream run which has seen the 25-year-old American win back to back Grand Slam titles this season, is the sports story of the year, then the magnificent comeback authored by Bhupathi and Paes, who won their second French Open title last fortnight, is rather more significant from the point of view of Indian sport.

But there can be no doubt that both Capriati and the Indian pair have displayed tremendous fighting spirit and resilience in the face of intimidating odds to bounce back as successfully as they have.

Of course, Capriati's comeback is at once more commendable and incredible. For, right through the second half of the 1990s, her name did not even figure anywhere near the top in the world of women's tennis. She was the long forgotten Ms.Burnout, a warning rather than an example.

The climb back to the pinnacle might not have been quite as steep for Bhupathi and Paes, although, at one point last year, it did appear that the most successful Indian doubles combination in history was so intent on self-destruction that nothing could be done to repair the damage.

On the face of it, the comeback authored by both Capriati and the Indians would appear miraculous. But, when you sit down and think about it, when you dig a little deeper, you'd realise that miracles had nothing to do with the triumphant return of these champions.

For, a miracle is often a product of an all-too-rare combination of circumstances, something whose unseen director is believed to be super-human. And to think that miracles were involved in bringing Capriati and the Bhupathi/Paes pair back to the pinnacle would take away from them what is their due.

Capriati as well as Bhupathi and Paes are human, all too human. And it is because of this they failed when they had the world at their feet, just when everything was thought to be going swimmingly for them. And it precisely because they were human that their latest successes are a tribute to their spirit and fortitude, to the strength of their will.

"This is sweet. Sweeter than most things in my career. We knew we had a shot at the French but we haven't played a lot of tennis over the last year and to win here like this is unbelievable," said Leander Paes, almost breathless, on telephone to The Sportstar less than an hour after the title triumph in Paris.

Capriati too believed that her success at Roland Garros, following last January's Australian Open triumph, stretched credibility.

"I am so thrilled, so happy. I don't know how I did it. I just can't believe I have won two Grand Slam titles in a row. I am on a roll," said the one-time Baroness of the Burnout Generation.

If the journey from dreamland to the world of nightmares was just a mishit forehand away, so to say, for both Capriati and the Indians, then the trek back to the fantasy stage has been arduous, one involving tremendous sacrifices, courage and one-pointed focus.

The specifics of how they lost their way and why they let it all come crashing down when they seemed set to rule the world may be a lot different. But the fact is, both Capriati as well as Bhupathi and Paes came up short when dealing with the "problems" of success.

In essence, they were felled by success and rejuvenated by failure. Down they were, after enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, but certainly not out.

"The paths of glory lead but to the grave," wrote Thomas Gray. This certainly seemed true in the case of Capriati and Bhupathi/Paes - of their careers - except that these remarkable champions ignored the last rites and set out to reclaim what they believed was theirs by right: championship glory.

Sport is as much a purveyor of nightmares as it is a vehicle of hopes and dreams. As Bernard Shaw wrote: "There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it."

In the event, for Capriati and Bhupathi/Paes, the path of rewards, riches and fame led not to fulfilment but to despair.

But then, in sport as in life, the journey to the land of light is as tough as it is simply because it takes you through the land of darkness. The champions survive the nightmare, lesser men lose their way.

"I keep saying I have always believed in myself. But then, at the same time, I can't believe all this is happening to me,"said Capriati, after beating Martina Hingis to win the Australian Open in January.

The believe-it-or-not tale began there in Melbourne Park and it has gathered momentum in Paris and now seems set to leave its impact on the freshly cut lawn of the All England Club later this month.

"I return well and I like my serve. So I think I have a very good chance. I am dying to set foot on the grass," said Capriati who became the youngest ever female semifinalist at Wimbledon (15 years and 95 days) in the summer of 1991 after beating the legendary Martina Navratilova, defending champion, in the quarterfinals.

Not long after Capriati's stunning defeat of Navratilova 10 years ago, a few of us - from the media - stood outside the players' entrance at the centre court talking to Nick Bollettieri.

The game's most famous coach raved about the young woman's potential and predicted that she could go on to become the youngest ever No.1 and world champion.

That wasn't a fancy prediction. Most of us who saw Capriati play at age 14 and 15 did believe that it was a question of time before the prodigious teenager captured the No.1 ranking.

As the precocious girl-woman cupped her palm and shut her mouth with it in a gesture of disbelief after beating Navratilova on the centre court, Capriati was very much a bewildered schoolgirl who had just done something outrageous or had watched something out-of-the-world happen before her eyes.

In that glorious summer of 1991 at Wimbledon, many of us believed that it was a historic moment, the moment when the torch had passed.

"Jennifer is a prime-time player. She gets more pumped up playing on the centre court than on court 11. She loves the moment. It didn't frighten her," I remember her then coach Tom Gullikson telling me that day.

A year on, we knew Gullikson was right when Capriati won the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona beating Steffi Graf in the final.

Then things went wrong, horribly wrong. The torch may have passed, but the young one realised that it was burning her fingers. She couldn't hold on to it anymore.

After losing in the first round of the U.S.Open in 1993, Capriati disappeared. A few months on she was back in the news, reprimanded for shop lifting and not long after that, following the drug bust, a dream had become a nightmare.

From 1996 to 1998, although Capriati did try to make a comeback, it seemed a futile business. It was only from 1999 that she sighted some sort of hope and her semifinal appearance at the Australian Open last year was her first entry to that stage of a Grand Slam since the U.S.Open in 1991.

For all that, even after she made the final of the Australian Open earlier this year, Capriati was not given much of a chance against the in-form Martina Hingis. But the inspired American came up with a memorable performance to knock out the favourite in straight sets, a conquest that she repeated on clay in Paris last fortnight in the semifinals.

"Dreams do come true," Capriati had said last January in Melbourne. In her case, they not only come true, but more importantly, don't seem to fade away in a hurry in her second avatar as champion.

For Bhupathi and Paes, too, it is their second avatar as champions. And the second French Open title triumph must be doubly sweet simply because, about this time last year their future as a team seemed rather bleak, to say the least.

For a time they had split because Bhupathi was recovering from a shoulder surgery, then because Paes was hurt. Not much later, the split was unofficial, and finally it was official. It did seem like it was the end of the road for India's finest doubles pair. Luckily for them, better sense prevailed and they both realised that neither of them would do half as well with another partner. They made the final of the World Championship in Bangalore late last year but it wasn't until April that things really started working.

They made the semifinals at Monte Carlo and then won back-to-back titles in the United States, at Atlanta and Houston. It was just the sort of preparation they needed for the French where they were seldom troubled, or stretched to their very limits.

That Bhupathi and Paes have re-invented themselves as world beaters is something that should thrill the fans in this country, for they still have a few years left in which to add greater laurels.

Gustavo Kuerten, meanwhile, has a lot more years left in the game. But he has already joined such heavyweights as Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander as a three-time French champion. There can be little doubt that the flamboyant Brazilian is the best clay court player of his generation.

No matter this, if Kuerten is keen to be recognised as a genuine all-round world beater, he has to rethink his attitude to Wimbledon which, whether he likes it or not, is still the most famous tennis tournament in the world.

Then again, right now, Guga's French Connection is as strong and durable as anybody's has ever been since the peerless clay court master Bjorn Borg won the last of his six titles at Roland Garros in 1981.

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