It was an up and down season

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

THEY were getting back to where they belonged. Taking short but sure steps, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were climbing back to the peak they had enjoyed in 1999, the No.1 ranking in the world.

Mahesh and Leander hope to be better prepared next season to go full blast for the No. 1 position.-GAMMA

In the world of doubles, Leander and Mahesh have a special place, for the firebrand tennis they play, intimidating the opposition, irrespective of their reputation or track record. In a season of mixed fortunes, they were at their best in many places, and many times stumbled out early, as they did in the three Grand Slams at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Yet, 2001 will be remembered for Leander and Mahesh re-establishing their identity at the French Open, by winning their third Grand Slam doubles title in Paris. After the turbulence of the last season, when all we could remember about Leander and Mahesh was their second round exit in the Olympics in Sydney, it was a welcome sign that the duo was back to its striking best early in the season.

After dropping the first set in the first round against Jaime Oncins of Brazil and Daniel Orsanic of Argentina, the crack Indian combination settled down nicely, and cruised its way to the title without dropping another set, asserting its overwhelming form on clay with a 6-3, 6-1 triumph over the third-seeded Jiri Novak and David Rikl of the Czech Republic in the pre-quarterfinals.

"The French Open was the pinnacle. It was a satisfying year overall as we won four titles including the big one in Cincinnati, and wound up the year with two finals", said Leander, quite pleased with the effort through a year, when the duo had to be doubly careful about avoiding injuries.

"Considering that it was our first full year as a team, on our return together, I think we did pretty well. We played well in the last two finals, but Ellis Ferreira and Rick Leach were better, and that was how we lost to them in the finals in Basel and Paris", said Mahesh, who had lost two other finals in the season in partnership with Sebastien Lareau of Canada and Jeff Tarango of the U.S.

Although the Indian pair won back to back titles in Atlanta and Houston on clay, dropping a solitary set in two weeks, there was not enough preparation for the duo for the French Open, because of the first round defeats in the 2.95 million dollar Masters series events in Rome and Hamburg. The loss to Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt in Rome was particularly glaring as Leander and Mahesh lost from being up 5-0 in the third set, after missing a matchpoint in the second.

The ability of Agassi and Hewitt are well known, and it was not a surprise fare from the U.S.-Australian combination, as Hewitt, who eventually finished the year as No.1 in singles, had shown his doubles prowess in the U.S. Open last year by winning the title with Max Mirnyi of Belarus. The ability to strike in the big events, especially the Grand Slams, was in full view as Leander and Mahesh pushed away the bad memories to crown themselves all over again in Paris, a brilliant follow-up after their memorable maiden triumph there in 1999, when they had the first taste of a Grand Slam doubles title on French clay.

It was a refreshing recovery from the time when the duo opted to skip the Masters series event in Key Biscayne after early exits in Dubai, Delray Beach and Indian Wells. Rest was the best remedy at that time, and Mahesh was rejuvenated with his visit back home, as he had the honour of receiving the Padma Shri award in person. Having had to miss the Arjuna Awards function earlier in his career, it was a moment to cherish for the 27-year-old, who has had to go through some bad times following a shoulder surgery at the end of 1999.

The ability to fight their way out was very much evident as early as in the Masters series event in Monte Carlo in April when Leander and Mahesh recovered from being three setpoints down at 4-5 to win 7-5, 6-0 against Johan Landsberg of Sweden and Tom Vanhoudt of Belgium in the first round. Though they lost the semifinals to the World No.1 team of Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden and Todd Woodbridge of Australia rather tamely at 3-6, 2-6, the Indian combination had its revenge in Cincinnati, with a straight-set triumph, albeit in two tie-breaks, in the semifinals of the Masters series event in August.

That event in Cincinnati, in which Leander and Mahesh were seeded sixth, was an eye-opener to many who had thought that the duo had travelled past its best years. Leander and Mahesh won their first two matches in three sets, and were at their fighting best in the quarterfinals against the fourth-seeded Jiri Novak and David Rikl of the Czech Republic in their 3-6, 7-6 (14-12), 6-2 triumph, saving as many as eight matchpoints. Title No.20 will definitely rekindle some fond memories for Leander and Mahesh in the years to come, when they find time to look back at their career.

It was reassuring to the fans, especially after the disappointment at the beginning of the season, when the duo crashed out in the semifinals of the Gold Flake Open in Chennai, where the duo had started its campaign to glory with their maiden ATP Tour doubles title in 1997 and had gone on to perform a hat-trick by grabbing the honours in the next two years.

The early defeats in three of the Grand Slams could not be digested by the fans, who had grown to understand that Leander and Mahesh have some knack of coming good in the biggest tennis events. "The Grand Slams weren't good for us this year, except for the French Open. We were not prepared for the Australian Open, and we played badly in the U.S. Open. We didn't have much practice together in Wimbledon, because Leander was busy with his singles. We will be better prepared next year", said Mahesh, reassuring that the duo would go full blast towards the No.1 position in the next season.

Leander and Mahesh lost their chance to crown the year as the World Doubles championship, scheduled to be held in Bangalore for the second successive year, had to be cancelled following security concerns, after the September 11 attack in New York and Washington.

Thus, Leander and Mahesh had to be content winding up the year at No. 4, with 598 ATP points. Bjorkman and Woodbridge finished No.1 with 785 points. In individual doubles, Mahesh finished the year at No.6 with 3425 points while Leander took the 11th spot with 2990 points. In terms of prize money, it was not exactly a rewarding season, as Leander collected 370,607 dollars and Mahesh 379,895 dollars for the efforts through the year. The bulk of the share had come in the French Open when the duo picked up a cheque for 213,210 dollars. Anyway, it was much better than last year, when Leander and Mahesh had to be content with just about half the money, as they won a solitary title in Tokyo, apart from reaching the final of the World Doubles championship, for the third time, in Bangalore.

Tokyo played another significant role in bringing Leander and Mahesh a bit more close, as they slogged it out for three hours and 15 minutes in scoring a five-set victory over Takao Suzuki and Thomas Shimada in the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group 'I' tie.

Beating the Wimbledon champions Donald Johnson and Jared Palmer in the fourth set tie-break, for the only win in the Davis Cup World Group qualifying match against the U.S. in Winston-Salem, was another remarkable effort by the Indian pair, especially in the light of the fact that the team had not won a match in its last meeting with the U.S. in Delhi in 1994.

Leander finished the season with a 38-15 win-loss record in doubles, while it was 46-19 for Mahesh, who played a few more tournaments than Leander with other partners.

Mahesh did lose the Challenger final with Syed Fazaluddin, apart from two other Tour event finals with Lareau and Tarango. "Playing with different partners week after week was not easy," observed Mahesh, who tried his hand in singles at the end of the season, getting back his winning touch. He, however, hurt his hamstring in doing the sprints, and thus was not able to capitalise on the available time. It has been an up and down season for Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. But that is the way life goes, even for the stars.