Mahesh Bhupathi: Big shoes to fill

ROHIT BRIJNATH

MAHESH BHUPATHI is a swell fellow, firm handshake, steady gaze, sharp sense of humour, sharper ear-stud, but when you accost him, it's hard to meet his eye. Only because mostly you're focussed on his shoes. From some angles you think, if you attach the necessary sail you could cross the Atlantic in them, or certainly use them to rock a baby to sleep. They're huge, they're gigantic, if he walked in the snow you'd call out the Yeti squad.

Mahesh Bhupathi's serve is a finely-woven mix of muscle and mind.-VINO JOHN

Hah, hah, Mahesh Bhupathi, would say. But, seriously, there's something funny about his feet. And it's not that they're size 14 1/2 US, which means he can't even get them in India. It's that despite their size, we've never really noticed his footprints (or in translation, never adequately recognised his ability) and that's because he's spent his life walking in someone else's footmarks. Leander Paes, to be exact.

Paes has been lighter on his feet, and quicker too. Literally, and otherwise. He started at 16, won the Nationals, surged into the singles Top 100, has beaten Pete Sampras, played (and does) like a young Lochinvar in Davis Cup, and then seemingly dragged Bhupathi towards doubles greatness.

Bhupathi was heavier on his feet and slower. Literally, and otherwise. Every feat of his was calibrated with a measuring tape called Paes. Everywhere he went, he was the step-brother, the also-man, the fellow back there in the orchestra given the second fiddle to play. It didn't matter that he comfortably held his own in doubles, he was tied to Paes with an umbilical cord so tightly it almost hurt.

But Mahesh Bhupathi, 28, has found his sun; he has used those feet to keep his balance and step quietly out of the shadows. This year, with four men's doubles titles and two Grand Slams (Wimbledon mixed with Elena Likhotseva; US Open with Max Mirnyi), for perhaps the first time, the tennis year is his.

He has, also, made a powerful case that he could be, eventually, possibly, the best doubles player India's ever had.

We can argue talent forever. If we say Paes moves with the thrill of an electric current then we must accede that Bhupathi's return has all the explosive accuracy of a smart bomb; if we talk about Paes' fencing at the net, like some quicksilver Musketeer, then we must acknowledge Bhupathi's serve, a finely-woven mix of muscle and mind.

Hell, we can talk about court craft, and overheads, and who went down the line when and why, and the partners they got, and the lucky net cords, and we can bio-mechanically dissect their craft and x-ray their stomachs for courage, but eventually, and we're talking only doubles here, it comes down to this. What do the history books say?

And, at present, they say this: Bhupathi has 26 men's doubles titles, and Paes 24; Bhupathi has seven Grand Slam wins (four men's doubles, three mixed), and Paes has four (three men's doubles, one mixed). Bhupathi won his first in 1997 with Rika Hiraki in the French and his last at this year's U.S. Open. He has won over five years, and with different partners, and on different surfaces. He has won enough to be his own man.

Bhupathi can't say he's the best, but modesty does not forbid some sense of achievement. Why should it? Sweat must get its due.

"I would like to think I'm up there with the best. I will let the results and records do the talking. I've set 10 Slams as my goal. I might not get there, but it is getting excitingly close now. I will have to work harder since I am getting older", he says.

For some, the Paes-Bhupathi split is spice, for others sadness, and every quote is studied with a tabloid view, to check which sentence carries a slight and which one a slur. So when Bhupathi said months ago that he's playing the best doubles he ever has, some interpreted it as a subtle dig at Paes.

But Bhupathi was merely indicating a peace of mind, an equilibrium that had slipped when both men had lost their friendship. By the end of it, their relationship was tinged with desperation, like sailors trying to bale water out of the Titanic. In some ways they are lesser men for their divorce, but in other ways, better.

As Bhupathi explains: "Well, it's no secret that since 1999 with the tensions and the split and this and that, it was not easy to concehtrate on tennis day in and day out. Now I feel after a long time I can just focus on playing good tennis and the results are showing this year".

There has always been, and will be, more to Paes than Bhupathi. But the reverse is somewhat accurate too, and rarely acknowledged. The taller man has been a heroic traveller as well, the product of his own uniquely personal journey, and thus his triumph deserves no asterisk. He was the 12-year-old who cried in the sun in Muscat, but gathered himself to knock back another of the hundred and more volleys his father threw at him. He was the 14-year-old, who once lost 17 first round matches in a row, and felt the powerful embrace of failure, but found in some corner of an embattled mind the courage to continue. He was the 20-plus year old, who moved like a geriatric at a square dance, but compensated for weakness with a different strength, till he became one of the very best of his breed.

Now, he looks back, to his father, and to himself, and he can smile at a journey that was often all scowl. "My dad did really work hard and honestly at times I didn't enjoy it, but today I am happy I stuck with it and kept at it. The journey was a long one, including a lot of setbacks with a very average junior career, but I got better."

What tasteless irony then, that now, as he finds himself, his art form is in decline. The ATP, weighed down by empty stands and reluctant TV networks, is to cut doubles prize money from 2003. Bhupathi argues that crowds are sparse in Europe, but not elsewhere, that as more singles players step into doubles next year (except in Grand Slams, where five sets of singles is too arduous a burden), it will resuscitate his craft. He is hopeful; he must be.

Doubles played well is chess on forward wind. It's worth a look, if only because you get more volleys in a match that in an entire singles tournament. Ask Bhupathi why we should bring our cold beer on hot days to a doubles court, and he talks about quick points, the strategy of a war-room, the invention of angles and teamwork at its purest.

It's a good sell. It means when he plays, it's worth strolling down to watch. And we promise not to look at his shoes too often. Except to say, the way he's playing these days, they're pretty big ones to fill.