Point for Leander in Indian rivalry

Published : Sep 19, 2009 00:00 IST

Success is indeed sweet... Lukas Dlouhy and Leander Paes with the doubles trophy.-AP
Success is indeed sweet... Lukas Dlouhy and Leander Paes with the doubles trophy.-AP

Success is indeed sweet... Lukas Dlouhy and Leander Paes with the doubles trophy.-AP

Leander and Mahesh on the opposite sides in a Grand Slam doubles final set the adrenaline racing in India. Leander prevailed, thanks to his partner Dlouhy. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

It was a long wait for the Indian fans — not just sitting late into the night that Sunday in front of their television sets, but even earlier as rain swept New York.

It was worth the wait, as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi fought a bitter battle in the US Open doubles final. Friends in arms even now in the Davis Cup arena, it was evident that the estranged partners were trying to make a point to each other. Of course, tennis took a beating at times as the excitement and anxiety led to glaring errors, but it was a contest that swung from one side to the other, teasing the fans.

Eventually, what prevailed was the mature game of the 36-year-old Leander and his partner, the 26-year-old Lukas Dlouhy.

In fact, Leander heaped praise on his Czech mate, for swinging the match around. Leander, himself, was unable to play at his best owing to soreness and pain in his shoulders, elbow and triceps.

“I was injured today and hurting. He just stepped up to the plate. My job was to bite the pain, embrace it and just be solid. I let Lukas do his magic,” Leander said.

When the 35-year-old Mahesh and his experienced partner from the Bahamas, Mark Knowles, ran away with the first set, breaking Leander in the second and sixth games, the match looked one-sided. The trend was underlined further when Mahesh and partner led 2-0 after breaking Dlouhy in the first game of the second set.

Leander and Dlouhy then stepped up the level of their tennis to win 12 of the next 15 games, as Knowles’ serve declined.

It was the second Grand Slam title of the season for Leander and Dlouhy, following the one at the French Open. It was a memorable climax for Leander after he had lost the mixed doubles final rather tamely in partnership with Cara Black.

“Usually, when I and Mahesh face off, it is a tough match. This final was no different. It is just that when it goes down to the wire, what matters is the ability to raise one’s game and put the other team under pressure. I am glad that we managed to do that in the middle of the second set,” Leander said.

Last year, Leander had won the mixed doubles title and lost the men’s doubles final at the US Open. It was vice versa this time.

“I know this is No.10 (Grand Slam title), but that is just a number. The joy of competing and prevailing against odds is what keeps spurring me on and not the desire to further fill up my trophy cabinet,” said Leander.

For Mahesh, it was a heart-break, particularly after he and Knowles had lost the Australian Open in almost similar fashion at the start of the season, losing the decider at love to the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike.

Knowles was also carrying an injury as he had cut his finger while holding open an elevator during the first week of the US Open. He had to play with stitches on the finger.

If you forget for a moment the rivalry between Leander and Mahesh, you would be able to appreciate their tremendous contribution in sustaining India’s pride on the Grand Slam stage, particularly this season.

While Leander has won two doubles titles, and finished runner-up in two mixed doubles events this year, Mahesh had won the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open with Sania Mirza, apart from finishing runner-up in two doubles events.

Three titles and four finals in a season in Grand Slams, give hope that Leander and Mahesh would be able to preserve themselves for their fifth Olympics as a pair in London 2012. It was for the first time that Leander and Mahesh had met in a Grand Slam final. They had met thrice in Grand Slams earlier, Leander leading 2-1. Overall, the two have met 19 times in men’s doubles events, with Leander having a 10-9 lead.

The two have won three Grand Slam titles together, and notched up seven more with other partners.

While Mahesh has 11 Grand Slam titles including seven in mixed doubles, Leander has 10, with six men’s doubles titles. Leander had won the Australian Open in 2006 with Martin Damm.

The fact must be haunting Mahesh that he has not been able to win a men’s doubles title in a Grand Slam after his triumph at the US Open, way back in 2002, in partnership with Max Mirnyi. He, of course, has the consolation of having won more doubles titles than Leander. While Mahesh has 45 titles from 79 finals, Leander has 42 from 70.

Mahesh can understandably be proud for opening the Grand Slam account in 1997 with the mixed doubles title at the French Open with Rika Hiraki of Japan as his partner. The first Grand Slam doubles title for Leander and Mahesh came at the French Open in 1999, the year in which they also won Wimbledon, apart from making the finals of the Australian and the US Opens.

Perhaps, the bitter rivalry between the two Indian tennis stars for nearly a decade has helped them fuel the fire to dominate the world stage.

They will forget these facts and figures as well as their rivalry once they join hands for the Davis Cup World Group play-off against South Africa. It is time to take India to the World Group, with Leander and Mahesh playing a key role in the pivotal doubles.

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