ON MISSION FUTURE

KALYAN ASHOK

Mahesh Bhupathi talking about his academy and other plans.-K. GOPINATHAN

"DO you mind if we talk after I am through with the morning practice?" asks a polite Mahesh Bhupathi, when an interview was sought. For Mahesh practice precedes everything and barring heavy rain, nothing can stop him from his daily routine of an early morning stint on the court.

It as an overcast early morning at the Nike-Bhupathi Tennis Village at Kodigehalli, on the outskirts of Bangalore and Mahesh Bhupathi was already on the court, urging the former Davis Cupper Prahlad Srinath, his hitting partner, to feed him more volleys. The Indian doubles ace, works hard for an hour or so, taking a short break in between to discuss few points with Srinath.

Mahesh and Leander Paes forged a very successful doubles combination.-RAJEEV BHATT

A clutch of young trainees at NBTA troop in and watch the champ at practice and learn a thing or two about total commitment and passion for the game. For Mahesh, ranked World No.1 in doubles in 1998 and 1999, these are inborn qualities and ask his father C. G. Krishna Bhupathi, the genial CGK, loves to reel off some lovely anecdotes about Mahesh.

"As a child, he used to sleep like a log, nobody can shake him up, but the moment I walk into his bedroom and say Mahesh, I am going for tennis, he would be up like jack in the box". There is another favourite tale which Krishna Bhupathi recalls. He left back a nine-year-old Mahesh at Dubai Tennis Club and drove home, forgetting to pick him up. When he rushed back, after six hours, realising his faux-pas, the young Mahesh was still on the court practising. "The guy didn't realise that I had come back to pick him up," says Krishna Bhupathi.

That all engrossing focus stayed on with Mahesh, even when he was thrown "in the deep'' on his first junior tour overseas when he suffered his 17 straight qualifying round losses in Europe, before getting back on a winning track the next year. That was an important lesson that young Mahesh was to remember for the rest of his career, success comes from failures. The glorious road in doubles in partnership with Leander Paes started in a Challenger at Jakarta in 1995 and ten years down the line, Mahesh is still on top with 38 career titles and eight Grand Slam titles.

The mixed doubles triumph at Wimbledon with Mary Pierce was `a turnaround,' as he sees it and that has given the confidence to stay with the top pack.

Reflecting on the memorable win, Mahesh Bhupathi, spoke to The Sportstar about his career, plans for a tennis academy and his dual role as a player and CEO of a Sports Management Company. Excerpts:

Question: The Wimbledon mixed doubles title has come after quite some gap and how significant is the triumph?

Answer: Well, it's been three years since I won a `Slam'(last was the US Open men's doubles with Max Mirnyi). So the win at Wimbledon is truly significant because it is a `Slam' and a special one at that. Every win at Wimbledon has been a memorable one for me, nothing really measures up to the grandeur of the All-England Championship. The victory has given me a lot of confidence at a stage, when I needed to carry on. This one is helping me to focus real hard and made me believe that I can play at the highest level at 31 and still carry on for a few more years.

Sania Mirza may team with Mahesh Bhupathi in future.-K.GOPINATHAN

You and Mary Pierce looked a perfect combination on court and watching you both play, it looked as if you both had done it for ages, though basically you came together just for this event, may be days before the Wimbledon fortnight. How did it click?

It was destiny and chemistry. I was looking for a mixed doubles partner and Mary Pierce, had told a common friend that she wanted to play in mixed doubles during the fortnight. The guy asked me if I could play with her? I said `yes' and that's how we got together and what made our combination intimidating was, both of us hit hard and we kept our spirits up. Mind you, we were not seeded and had tough matches, but we kept our spirits up. The bond grew, match by match and Mary and I had real fun out there and we enjoyed every moment of our on court partnership. The team spirit plays a great role in doubles and surely Mary proved to be the right one for this Wimbledon. There is something about Mary (smiles).

How different is it to play the mixed doubles from men's doubles? What sort of equations are involved?

In men's doubles, it is a 50-50 situation, both partners sharing the job. But in mixed doubles, the man has to take on a major role and take care of the female partner as well. But in Wimbledon, I didn't have much problem on that count as Mary is a fabulous player and we hit off from Day One.

Do you plan to play together again, say in the US Open?

We haven't decided on that yet. If she is ready and fit and I am ready to play with her again. Mary's top priority at the US open would be singles. Let's see, how it works out. (Mahesh may consider pairing with Sania in mixed doubles if she breaks into the top 50 in world rankings).

Any plans of coming together with Leander Paes again for a few events, including a Slam or two?

I think Leander is pretty happy with his new partner and I am committed to play with Martin Damm till the end of the season. Of course, both us would play the Davis Cup. So far, no plans for teaming up again, but let's see, how things go.

How good is your new partner, Martin Damm?

Martin, I would say is pretty under-rated as a player. Believe me, the guy plays hard, from being a solid backhander he has transformed to play strongly on forehand too. The guy hasn't won any Slam events, but he has 30 titles. He is a great hitter and the only thing that halted his progress was lack of a good coach. I am sure we would complement each other and make a good team, which is tough to beat.

A lot was expected from you and Todd Woodbridge, undoubtedly one of the greatest doubles players of the era. But the outcome at Wimbeldon didn't match that expectation.

What happened at Wimbledon was that we put too much pressure on our serve and there was lot of stress, but then we went down to the champion team of Stephen Huss and Wesley Moodie, so I wouldn't term it as a bad loss. But it would have been nice if Todd ended his career on a high note, we had some great time together for five months with Mark Woodford, for company as the coach. We won in Sydney and made a couple of semis, I really enjoyed playing with Todd.

Having a word with up and coming youngster Prakash Amirtraj.-RAJEEV BHATT

You said after Wimbledon your target would be 10 `Slams,' are you on track?

I guess so, I have already covered 80 per cent of the road. When I won five `Slams', I thought it would be nice if I take three more and now that I have done it, I think 10 would be perfect. I might or might not get there, but I would work as hard as I can to get there.

What sort of scenario you visualise for Indian tennis in the post-Leander and Mahesh period?

Fortunately, we have Sania who is already up there in women's singles. Then we have some good players like Shikha Uberoi, her sister Neha and in men's game, we have Prakash (Amritraj), Rohan (Bopanna), Harsh (Mankad), Karan (Rastogi). They are all at a level where one of them needs to break through. Prakash had some good results and Rohan is coming good after recovering from injuries and I am sure one of them would get into big league.

Elaborate on your future plans and about your tennis academy...

There is no doubt that there is enough talent in India and we have to tap it and I plan to come out with my academy functioning at three different levels. It will be called Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academy. I plan to start at the entry level, with kids having the right basics at different centres for the MBTA. Then we plan to have `MBTA Advanced' in four more centres where we would have 10 kids in each centre for advanced training with a physical trainer and coach. Then there would be `MBTA Elite,' for the top 15 or 20 kids in the country. I am working on getting a corporate sponsor so that we can look after the kids. This is more on the lines of Britannia Amritraj Academy, they did it with eight kids and I would prefer to have 20. The more you have, the more the chances of finding a champion.

Do we have the right structure for the development of the game in the country?

If you had asked me this question ten years ago, I would have probably said `No.' But AITA had made lot of changes and lot of tournaments are there for juniors and many are getting the AITA's support and are being sent out for exposure and for ITF junior events abroad. We have a slew of ITF Futures and Satellite events at home and it is definitely an opportunity. It is something, I didn't have in my junior days, but kids now have that, it is for them to use it. It is for the good. But lot more have to be taken, if we want to build champions on yearly basis. We need to have programmes, like in Spain and Argentina.

Mahesh, for the past few years, you have taken a new role of CEO of your sports and event management firm, Globosport, how do you balance your career and business?

Thanks to technology, wherever I go, I take my laptop and `Black Berry' and that helps me to keep in touch and provide inputs for the Globosport. I have a great team working for me and that makes my life easier and as you said balancing is tough, but I enjoy the challenge of making some difference to sports event management in the country and giving quality support to sportspersons with good potential.

Do you find time for relaxation and is there a favourite destination for a break?

Getting quality time for relaxation is tough, given my two commitments. But when I find it, I am back home here and prefer to spend it watching a few movies and hanging out with friends. Favourite destinations are New York and Melbourne.

Any major disappointments in your career?

Obiviously, it was last Olympics (at Athens 2004). Leander and I played some close matches, but failed to come back with a medal. But then it is part of an athlete's life. There are ups and downs and if you don't take the bad with good, it would be tough to succeed.

Any specific goals for this season?

A Grand Slam title a year is not a bad goal and I have done that. After two weeks in Europe, I will go to the States and spend four weeks over there. Finishing in the top 10 or 15 (in doubles) before the year is a major priority and winning a title at the Australian Open would be great. I have never won one — either men's doubles or mixed doubles — out there. It is one of my long cherished goals.

Grand Slam titles

1997: French Open mixed doubes with Rika Hiraki (Japan).

1999: French Open and Wimbledon men's doubles titles with Leander Paes. US Open mixed doubles title with Ai Sugiyama (Japan).

2001: French Open title with Leander Paes.

2002: Wimbledon mixed doubles with Elena Likhotseva (Russia). US Open men's doubles title with Max Mirnyi (Belarus).

2005: Wimbledon mixed doubles with Mary Pierce (France).

(Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes were finalists in the ATP World Doubles Championship in 1997,1999 and 2000).

Total number of doubles titles in career: 38