They did not disappoint the fans

K. KEERTHIVASAN

THEY parted ways briefly after a successful partnership only to patch up later and win their third Grand Slam title at Roland Garros last year. For the renowned pair of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, New Year and the Tata Open ushered in hope and expectations from millions of countrymen.

Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes started the year 2002 with a bang. They quelled the fighting Czech pair of Tomas Cibulec and Ota Fukarek in the final.-VINO JOHN

They wanted the duo to put up a winning performance in the Open, similar to their exploits here from 1997-1999 when they made a hat-trick of titles.

The pair huffed and puffed before pulling off a hard-fought win over the Czech pair of Tomas Cibulec and Ota Fukarek in a see-saw final and lived up to their top seed billing. Bhupathi and Paes won 5-7, 6-2, 7-5.

On that Sunday night at the SDAT-Nungambakkam Stadium, before a packed crowd of over 5000, which strained its vocal chords to the fullest extent, the Indian duo set the hearts of fans aflutter before clinching the title for the fourth time.

Leander Paes' connection with Chennai needs little mention as he did his schooling here, and also trained at the Britannia Amritraj Trust. No doubt, Chennai has been his second home.

Success for India in tennis has come from singles more often than not. Ramanathan Krishnan, his son Ramesh and Vijay Amritraj did India proud in the singles, not to mention the Davis Cup exploits of Leander. But doubles as an event had been largely unrepresented before the arrival of Bhupathi-Paes pair. The Amritraj brothers did forge a successful partnership in the Davis Cup ties, but doubles gained considerable respect and recognition mainly because of the splendid results shown by the Bhupathi-Paes combination.

Bhupathi-Paes pair would be grateful to the Chennai crowd for their affection and the reception they accord everytime the dynamic duo step into the SDAT-Nungambakkam Stadium. The chemistry between the two was perfect, the chest banging dramatic.

More than their Grand Slams victories, the duo would cherish their tryst with Chennai as something very special. Everytime they set foot at the SDAT-Nungambakkam Stadium, a full house crowd awaited them.

The Indian pair had a tough journey enroute to the final. They had to fight past Thomas Johansson (Sweden) and Andrei Pavel (Romania) in the first round, and then received a walkover in the quarterfinal from Juan Balcells (Spain) and George Bastl (Switzerland).

The walkover was a blessing in disguise as it gave them time to prepare for the semifinals. With a passionate crowd and a lively atmosphere, it was a perfect setting for a thrilling encounter.

A determined pair of Frantisek Cermak and Petr Luxa of the Czech Republic posed some tough questions to the Bhupathi-Paes pair. Champions deliver when the going gets tough, and the top seeded pair delivered the knock out punch when it mattered most winning 7-5, 6-7 (5), 7-5, in an encounter which lasted two hours and eight minutes.

Leander observed how difficult it was to find a reliable partner and what it takes for a pair's success. "We did not strike it immediately. I knew Mahesh since he was 15 years, and we started playing tournaments from 22 years. You should complement each other well. Your strength should be his weakness and his weakness should be your strengths."

Leander and Mahesh admitted that they are finding it difficult to juggle their singles with doubles. Be that as it may, the fact remains that it has been the 'bread and butter' doubles that has taken the two to international heights.

"It is nice to win the first tournament of the year. It gives you a lot of confidence. The crowds were great and we always enjoy playing here," said Paes during the post match conference. "We wanted to start the year on the right note and we have. Both of us are happy," said Bhupathi. "We have a knack of winning tough encounters."

Long after Paes and Bhupathi hang up their boots, what will linger in their minds more than the success in the Slams, are fond memories of having provided joy and satisfaction to the sport-loving Chennai crowd.

The results:

Final: Leander Paes/Mahesh Bhupathi (Ind) bt Tomas Cibulec/Ota Fukarek (Cze) 5-7, 6-2, 7-5; semifinals: Tomas Cibulec/Ota Fukarek (Cze) bt Byron Black (Zim)/Fabrice Santoro (Fra) 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-1); Leander Paes/Mahesh Bhupathi (Ind) bt Frantisek Cermak/Petr Luxa (Cze) 7-5, 6-7 (5), 7-5.