MIXING DISPARATE SKILLS

S. SUBRAMANIUM

It's not that Mahesh Bhupathi isn't pleasant, or won't take your calls, or doesn't give you his full earringed attention. Hell no, he's a regular guy with a sense of humour drier than a Bond martini, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

When you go to meet Mahesh Bhupathi, go armed. Forget the pen, tuck away the pad. Just bring a hammer and find a keen chisel. This is going to be hard work.

It's not that Mahesh Bhupathi isn't pleasant, or won't take your calls, or doesn't give you his full earringed attention. Hell no, he's a regular guy with a sense of humour drier than a Bond martini.

It's just that when it comes to speaking about himself he becomes the incredible bashful hulk. Sometimes on the phone he takes so long to answer a question you think he's hung up. His email replies are so clipped you think he functions on a daily quota of words. His hymn is to go hmmm.

So here he is, wearing shoes big enough for Hingis to sleep in, and he's hemming, and you're slowly chipping away at the edifice of part-nonchalant-man, part-unassuming-man he's built for himself.

So let's be kind, let's say for him what he won't, that this 31-year-old fellow is the best practitioner of many in the specific art of doubles to arrive from India's shores.

Hmmm, he says.

When Bhupathi walked off court with Martina Hingis at this year's Australian Open as mixed doubles champion it was the 10th Grand Slam title he had won (six mixed doubles, four men's doubles; Leander Paes, admittedly more than a doubles player, has six).

The number is not a coincidence. Once, when Bhupathi owned four, and people kept asking him what his goals were, and in truth he'd never even seriously contemplated them, he just picked a random number, "an astronomical one" he says, and threw it on the table. "Ten", he said pithily. "Ten, would be something". Ten he now has. Ten, he says, "I can't even comprehend".

Of the 10, three men's have been won with Paes and one with Max Mirnyi, and six mixed with different women (Japan's Rika Hiraki and Ai Sugiyama, Russia's Elena Likhovtseva, Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova, Switzerland's Hingis and French-American Mary Pierce), which if nothing else suggest he should be multi-lingual when it comes to profanity.

"Unfortunately, I'm not", he says.

Not even a "you're blind, umpire", in Japanese? Nope.

But thing is, while mixed doubles doesn't appear quite as complicated as calculus, victory has demanded more than a degree of versatility from him. Some of his women partners serve and volley, some stay back, and it changes the way he moves, how much he must cover at the net, which geographies of the court he must dominate, how to mesh disparate skills. All he does superbly.

"I like teamwork", he explains. "I like challenges, I like new partners, I like finding new ways to win". OK, fine, we like what you do, too.

Whatever, it's not bad, you think, for a player whose old coach Enrico Piperno once told him he was "the worst mixed doubles player ever".

When Bhupathi played the first mixed match of his life, at the 1997 French Open, he clearly hadn't read up on the works of Big Bill Tilden. As the legendary American, a sort of tennis scientist, once wrote: "There are a few tactical rules for mixed doubles. One is to hit the woman whenever possible". (Sometimes, of course, as when Venus nailed a smash into Bhupathi's shoulder blades one year at Wimbledon, the reverse happens, but that's another story).

Anyway, Bhupathi is well brought up. In this match at the French, he politely only hits to the man, in this case Scott Davis, playing alongside Kerri-Anne Guse. A struggle ensues and he and Hiraki win this first round, but only after saving three match points, and that's when Piperno, rightfully, lets him have it.

What were you thinking, dude? Hmmm, this wasn't good. So Bhupathi thinks, works out where to hit, keeps knocking it back to the woman and hey presto, he and Hiraki are French Open champions.

But this is the thing with India's best doubles player, he's a good learner. And he's done it unobtrusively, with a minimum of fuss, which come to think of it, is the way he plays. He wears frills as comfortably as Mike Tyson would a lace shirt. It's not that he won't get a high grade in the dink, or is a stranger to finesse, it's just that his game, highlighted by an interrogating backhand return, is a powerful expression of solidity, a superb sum of many polished parts.

He was never the most natural of athletes, but he's rarely out of position; he wasn't quite Picasso with the volley, yet how many do you see him miss; he never considered himself a serve and volleyer now he's making history doing it! He confesses he lacked the innate confidence of someone like Paes yet now, 10 Slams in his pocket, he knows "any time I walk on court I know I have a chance". Give him a medal for understatement. As a young player he was once cruelly dismissed by a former Indian player as a carthorse. Bhupathi said nothing then, now his 37 men's doubles titles, an Indian record, stands as a ferocious reply. This is a man who has quietly become wonderfully articulate with his racquet and it speaks a winning language.

It's why Daniela Hantuchova, who has all four mixed Grand Slam titles herself, told him after last year's US Open, that she's played with a lot of talented guys, but he, he was at a different level. It's why when he, hopefully, mailed Hingis' agent before this year's Australian Open, she responded fast, and later, after victory, said of her partner: "He's the man right now in mixed doubles and also in doubles. Just next to him, it gives you so much satisfaction and security that, you know, you have to put the serve and returns in and he does the rest, so that's nice, you have someone to carry you all the way." All these compliments, all these women, so many of them accomplished singles performers, wanting to play with him, is enough to make a guy's cap not fit over his ego. So what does he say? "The fact that they all say yes (to play with him) is nice, but winning is better. They're used to winning and I don't want to let them down".

We think it's safe to say, he hasn't.

Hingis may play with him again at the Slams, if she doesn't someone else will call. The kid, whose only companion on court as a kid under the Muscat sun was a hard-working, hard-driving father, is now a man who may be short of a word but never short of a partner. His trophies, the 10 big ones, they've been locked in a safe in a bank by his wife, and one of these days, when he finishes moving house in Bangalore, he's going to take them out. Maybe he'll polish them lovingly, arrange them neatly on a mantelpiece, then step back and look at what he's done with his life. It's been a helluva journey but you know what he'll say.

Hmmm.