Their names spell gold

The gold winners: Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza (below with Paes after winning the mixed doubles final).-Pics: PTI The gold winners: Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza (below with Paes after winning the mixed doubles final).

It was great to see India finish on top of the medals table, above China, with two gold and two silver medals, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

At the moment of reckoning, champions stand out. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are champion class, no less. They stand head and shoulders above the rest. They proved it over the years around the world, including at the Mecca of tennis, Wimbledon.

Yet, the gratifying point at the Khalifa Tennis Complex during the cracker of a doubles final against the Thai twins, Sanchai Ratiwatana and Sonchat Ratiwatana, in the 15th Asian Games was that time had not withered their passion for excellence and hunger for success.

Equally, time and a hundred other factors had not washed away their mutual trust on court. Count their trophies, not the money and their age.

Leander and Mahesh were walking on thin ice, in front of a packed arena on a chilly afternoon in Doha, as they faced seven match points in the doubles final. They were trying their best to defend their gold against all odds. Finally, they subdued the Thais who had done everything except win that last point. Seven gold points, as someone beautifully put it.

"I am just relieved. It has been a really long week. To come with such a win is just great,'' said Leander who was at his best, as he played those cotton-wool drop shots that exposed the inadequacies of the athletic Thais.

"We got each other fired up. We kept a superior level. It was a tiring game, and the job is done,'' said Mahesh, who was grappling with a back problem.

He had even shouted in the 10th game of the second set to Leander, "are we doing it in straight sets or what,'' as the two tried to fire up each other, chest bumps and all.

The admirable thing was despite the physical problem, Mahesh was bending the maximum to dig out those low volleys. He also fired those big first serves when down 0-40 and staring at defeat in the 12th game of the second set.

Easily, this was Indian sport at its best in the entire Asian Games. The crowd — majority of them were Indians — loved it and lapped it all up in a terrific atmosphere that was charged with emotions.

"It was an amazing atmosphere. We are happy to win the gold,'' said Mahesh after the 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-3 victory.

Leander was gracious in triumph and acknowledged the superb game of the Thais.

"They were very unlucky not to win the match in straight sets,'' said Leander.

India's best ever doubles pair winning the gold was thought of as a foregone conclusion like in kabaddi. But it was achieved amidst high drama, and the national anthem sounded quite vibrant, especially when the whole stadium sang it in a fitting tribute to the champions in an electrifying atmosphere.

"We saved all those match points. It just shows that we fought hard, and won by the skin of our teeth,'' observed Leander as he attempted to put things in perspective.

Once the Indian pair won that second set to be on par, the writing was on the wall, and the crowd could just relax and enjoy the tennis.

"I tried everything I could to win, but we just lost. They played really good, and on the important points, they were just unbelievable,'' said Sanchai.

"We tried, but they were just too good,'' acknowledged Sonchat.

Leander came back on court with Sania Mirza to capture the mixed doubles gold as well. In doing so, the 33-year-old became the most successful tennis player in the history of Asian Games, as it was his sixth individual medal, and fourth gold.

Leander had won the doubles gold earlier with Mahesh and Gaurav Natekar. He had also won the individual bronze in 1994 and the mixed doubles bronze at Busan with Sania.

Mahesh was a step behind with five individual medals. He had won the mixed doubles silver with Manisha Malhotra in the last edition, apart from the doubles gold with Leander.

The star that he is, Leander did usurp the stage on that memorable day, but the 20-year-old Sania, playing with remarkable maturity, confidence and athleticism, was indeed a class act as she wound up with a gold and two silver medals.

She did play her part very well with Leander, despite the slips, to beat the tough Japanese duo of Satoshi Iwabuchi and Akiko Morigami in the final, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2.

Yet, Sania will be remembered for her superb efforts in the singles and the team competition.

Having tuned her physical fitness superbly before the Asian Games, Sania took the field by surprise as she provided a high quality fare. She did not lose a singles match till the individual event final, and that spoke volumes of her performance.

Sania was at her best when she beat the world No. 21 Li Na, the top seed in singles, for the loss of four games in the semifinals. However, Zheng Jie, the 33rd ranked Chinese, with quicksilver footwork proved a lot better in the climax, but not before Sania showed her fighting qualities to take the match to the third set. The Chinese won, 6-4, 1-6, 6-1.

It was tremendous tennis at the end of a tough season. Sania tried her best with Shikha Uberoi in the team event, but the Chinese Taipei pipped India in the women's doubles final. The US-based Shikha supported Sania admirably by winning those first singles matches against better opponents from Thailand and Uzbekistan.

In the final, Su Wei Hsieh was far too crafty and precise to the comfort of Shikha.

Yet, it was an amazing effort from the Indian women's team to win the silver. No Indian women's team had won a medal in the previous Asian Games.

"Before the start, if someone had said that we would be getting the silver, I would have taken it. But to come this close and lose, it is hard. Hats off to Sania, and Shikha, they did a good job,'' said coach Enrico Piperno who had pulled the team together as a strong fighting unit.

Immediately after the team event, Piperno was categorical in saying that Sania would win the singles gold if she maintained the quality of her game. Sania came pretty close to proving the coach right.

The crowds loved her, and she promised them that she would come back to Doha for the WTA Tour events in future.

It was great to listen to the national anthem twice at the tennis complex. It was great to see India finish on top of the medals table, above China, with four medals. China did have five medals, but three of them were bronze. Zheng Jie won both the singles and doubles to assert her class. She had won two singles titles on the Tour this season and also the doubles titles at the Australian Open and the Wimbledon.

Rohan Bopanna played a great match against Yen Hsun Lu of Chinese Taipei, a top-100 professional, but the Indian team shockingly lost the doubles. That possibly paved the way for the eventual gold medals, as everyone pulled up their socks and got ready for the battle.

Bopanna in partnership with Mustafa Ghouse went down in the doubles quarterfinals.

Karan Rastogi missed a golden chance to upset Yeu Tzuoo Wang of Chinese Taipei in the singles event, but the boy will work harder to get better.

Indeed, the tennis players made the Indians feel proud. Rarely do you get to hear the Indian national anthem at the Asian Games. Indian tennis provided a double delight.