It was great till the duo lasted

Perfect match... Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi formed a great combination to become world-beaters.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

As long as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi played together India had tremendous success in doubles. And there was no dearth of drama and emotions too, writes KAMESH SRINIVASAN

THEY came in thousands, stayed back in the night in the warmth of the floodlights, just to watch the crack combination in action. Rarely did they go back disappointed. When Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were together on one side of the net, there was no dearth of drama and emotions. Over the years, there was no dearth of success for Indian tennis in doubles at the ATP Tour event in Chennai. That is, till the duo lasted. Yes, it was great till they lasted!

The memory takes one back to the first ATP Tour event in New Delhi, when Leander and Mahesh, just about finding their feet on the Challenger Circuit as a team, lost 1-6, 2-6 to Jakob Hlasek and Anders Jarryd in the first round. The amicable Jarryd said then that it would be unfair to write off Leander and Mahesh as a combination despite the drubbing they suffered.

A year later, Leander and Mahesh showed that Jarryd (58 doubles titles from 90 finals) did talk sense, as they won their maiden Tour title in Chennai, beating Oleg Ogorodov and Eyal Ran in the final. Quite surprisingly, the Indian duo did not drop a set on way to the title, though it was lucky to get a walkover from Thomas Enqvist and Mikael Tillstrom in the quarterfinals.

For the disillusioned spectators who had seen both Leander and Mahesh being ripped apart in singles earlier in the tournament, the doubles title came as a whiff of fresh air.

It was a splendid beginning for Leander and Mahesh as the dynamic duo scaled great heights through that season, winning six titles on the Tour, before reaching the World Doubles Championship final at Hartford.

The expectations were high the following season and the drama that unfolded was equally exciting. In a tough field that had the Woodies, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde as the No.1 seeds, Leander and Mahesh ploughed through to their second title in Chennai, winning each of their four matches in three sets. The pair beat Olivier Delaitre and Max Mirnyi, seeded No. 4, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 in the final.

Will they perform a hat-trick? That was the question in the minds of the enthusiastic fans in 1999. Yes, the duo did, in another spell of sparkling tennis. In a season when they went on to become the second pair in the world to make the finals of all the four Grand Slams, when they won their maiden Grand Slam titles at the French Open and Wimbledon, Leander and Mahesh once again lived up to the expectations of the Chennai fans by completing a memorable hat-trick.

Their stature had grown and Leander and Mahesh were seeded No.1 in Chennai in 1999. True to their seeding, the duo beat Wayne Black and Neville Godwin 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the final. In fact, barring the first round, it was once again three-set thrillers for Leander and Mahesh, with Mark Keil and Andre Sa stretching them to the tie-break in the final set of the quarterfinals.

In 2000, the year of the Sydney Olympics, Leander came alone to Chennai and partnered the seasoned Byron Black to be the top seed, as Mahesh was recovering from a shoulder surgery. In fact, Mahesh was busy in the commentary box, wondering at the volleying skills of Prahlad Srinath, who managed to reach the final along with Saurav Panja, a remarkable achievement from the bottom half the draw that had Martin Damm and Yevgeny Kafelnikov as the second seeds.

Leander and Black bowed out in the second round, much to the disappointment of the home fans to eventual champions, Julien Boutter and Christophe Rochus.

Leander and Mahesh came together in 2001 as they looked to have strengthened their bond after the chastening experience at the Sydney Olympics, but they could not recreate the magic of yore, and lost in the semifinals 6-2, 6-7 (6), 4-6 to Barry Cowan and Mose Navarra. The Black brothers, Wayne and Byron, capitalised on the exit of the home favourites and walked away with the trophy.

If people thought that the Indian duo was past its best, Leander and Mahesh proved them wrong as the top seeds in 2002, asserting their fighting qualities in ample measure. It was perhaps the toughest of them all!

Leander and Mahesh beat Thomas Johansson and Andrei Pavel in the first round 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. They got a walkover from Juan Balcells and George Bastl in the second round, and escaped by the skin of their teeth in a thrilling semifinal against Frantisek Cermak and Petr Luxa, winning 7-5, 6-7 (5), 7-5. In the final, Leander and Mahesh had to dig deep into their reserves to overcome Tomas Cibulek and Ota Fukarek 5-7, 6-2, 7-5.

It was well worth the effort though, as Leander and Mahesh were not to play together any more in Chennai. Both were also unable to strike as successful combination with other partners.

In 2003 Mahesh joined Todd Woodbridge as the No. 1 seed, but the pair lost 2-6, 2-6 to Frantisek Cermak and Leos Friedl in the semifinals. In the bottom half, Leander and David Rikl, seeded No. 2, lost to Tomas Cibulek and Ota Fukarek 6-2, 3-6, 6-7 (8) in a heart-breaker of a quarterfinal. The following year, Mahesh and Dmitry Tursunov lost to top-seeded Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram in the first round when Rafael Nadal, not very well known then, captured the doubles title with Tommy Robredo.

Last year Mahesh Bhupathi and Jonas Bjorkman, the top seeds, went down 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (4) to Yen-Hsun Lu and Rainer Schuettler in the final. Lu and Schuettler had earlier stopped the second-seeded Leander and Nenad Zimonjic in three sets in the semifinals.

They may have won dozens of titles around the world, including the Grand Slams together and with other partners, but what stands out in memory is the electrifying atmosphere at the Nungambakkam Stadium when Leander and Mahesh went about their task with such camaraderie and admirable authority. (Oh, those chest butts!) The seeds of their success as one of the top doubles team in the world (Leander and Mahesh have won more than seven million dollars between them on the professional Tour) were, after all, sown in Chennai.