United they need to stand

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have a healthy respect for each other. They also know the value of each other. In order to conquer new frontiers, the two have to JOIN HANDS, writes KAMESH SRINIVASAN.

They are two of the best we have in Indian sports. At a time when they know the value of each other and want to join hands, destiny is driving them in different directions.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have been the superstars of Indian tennis with their superlative performances in the doubles in the Grand Slam events. The two have also pulled their weight for the country in the Asian Games, Olympics and Davis Cup with admirable results.

Leander and Mahesh have won more than 250 matches as a team in the intensely competitive international arena, and affixed their stamp of class. They have lost only about one third of the total number of matches they have won.

So, it was jarring to hear Mahesh, 32, announce at the end of the ATP Tour event in Mumbai, that he was stepping back and had possibly played his last match for the country.

It was perhaps an emotional reaction to a difficult situation where Mahesh felt that he was not wanted. Otherwise, how does one explain the fact that he was not even recommended for the Rajiv Khel Ratna Award in the year he won three successive Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. (Actually he was on the verge of a fourth successive Grand Slam mixed doubles title, when his partner Martina Hingis expressed her inability to play in the second round at the French Open.)

Things seemed to come apart when Sania Mirza, the star of Indian women's tennis, decided to partner Leander Paes at the forthcoming Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, while the whole nation was under the impression that she would play along-side her mentor Mahesh. As for Sania's decision, it was perhaps her way of expressing her gratitude to Leander, who picked the Hyderabad player, who was 15 years old then, as his mixed doubles partner at the Busan Asian Games in 2002. Leander and Sania went on to win the bronze medal, while Mahesh and Manisha Malhotra squandered a match point in the final and subsequently missed the gold.

Had the AITA officials discussed the matter with Mahesh and then decided that it was in the best interest of the Indian team that Sania partners Leander, all the unpleasantness could have been avoided. But the selection panel thrust the decision on the player who, given his stature in the sport, had the right to express his option.

Mahesh, clearly missing a player of the calibre of Leander, struggled this season until he teamed up with Mario Ancic of Croatia, a top-10 singles player, to win back to back doubles titles in Beijing and Mumbai. In planning for the next season and the Olympics in 2008, Mahesh strongly felt that he and Leander would have to work hard to win the gold medal at the Beijing Games.

On the other hand, Leander, after so much of effort, finally struck a fine combination with Martin Damm of the Czech Republic. The duo won the US Open and also entered the final of the Australian Open and the semi-finals of Wimbledon.

It is how well you do in the Grand Slams that defines the success of a player. And Leander was quite reasonable in stating that he would like to continue with Damm for the next season as well, and help take the partnership to greater heights. After all, Leander had won his first Grand Slam doubles title with a partner other than Mahesh, and it had taken him four years to do that.

However, there is still time for Leander and Mahesh to join hands after the US Open next year and play together for a year as a quality build-up to the Olympics, beginning on August 8 in 2008. For a player who has won 39 doubles titles and has been a world No. 1, it must have been frustrating for Mahesh not to find a good partner. With all the feelings getting mixed, he said he was dropping out of the Indian team and that he was more keen on focussing on winning the Australian Open than worry about turning out for his nation at the Asian Games in Doha in December.

For someone who was ready to skip professional commitments on the Tour to play a diluted Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad, Mahesh was now willing to visualise a situation when he would not be a part of the Indian teams for the Asian Games and the Olympics, apart from the numerous Davis Cup ties.

He was considerably tense while playing with Ancic in the doubles quarterfinals against Leander and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi at the Kingfisher Airlines Open in Mumbai. He may not like to agree, but it has always been important for Mahesh to impress Leander, if not the world. The Indo-Croatian pair did win after a superb contest that helped Mahesh make it 7-7 in the doubles against Leander on the professional Tour.

For sure, there is no bigger fan of Leander among the millions around the world than Mahesh himself. He had looked up to Leander in those early days in 1994 when the pair played together in a Challenger in Jakarta for the first time, but over the years he had yearned for acknowledgement from his illustrious partner that he had also become equally good.

Having been religiously tutored to believe that he was better than the rest of the world, it may not have been in the character of Leander to concede due status to Mahesh, though he never doubted the high quality of his game that made the pair one of the best in the world.

Mahesh's latest statement, that it was futile for him to continue playing for the country without Leander's support, is a proof of his admiration for his former partner with whom he has experienced times of triumph and turmoil over a decade.

Leander and Mahesh have a healthy respect for each other. They also know the value of each other. No frontier can be conquered without the two joining hands.

The disagreement between the two is a temporary situation that would hopefully be mended soon with the intervention of right-thinking people.

From making unsuccessful rounds of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) office in 1994 to be part of the Indian contingent for the Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan, Mahesh has come a long way, and he thinks he is qualified to make his own decisions rather than let the world dictate terms to him. Yet, if you understand him and his simple methods, you wouldn't doubt that Mahesh's heart beats for India.

Let us hope that this is just another beginning of a chapter in the Leander-Mahesh saga, rather than the end of an era..

LEANDER-MAHESH RECORD

AP

GRAND SLAMS

1999: French Open - beat Goran Ivanisevic & Jeff Tarango 6-2, 7-5 in the final.

1999: Wimbledon - beat No. 8 seeds, Paul Haarhuis & Jared Palmer 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 in the final. 2001: French Open - beat Petr Pala & Pavel Vizner 7-6, 6-3 in the final.

ATP EVENTS

1997: India Grand Prix (Chennai); Czech Republic Grand Prix (Prague), Canada Tennis Masters Series (Montreal), U.S.A. Grand Prix (New Haven), China Grand Prix (Beijing), Singapore Grand Prix (Singapore).

1998: Qatar International Series (Doha), U.A.E. International Series (Dubai), India International Series (Chennai), Italy Tennis Masters Series (Rome), China International Series (Shanghai), France Tennis Masters Series (Paris).

1999: India International Series (Chennai). 2000: Japan International Series (Tokyo).

2001: U.S.A. International Series (Atlanta), U.S.A. International Series (Houston), U.S.A. Tennis Masters Series (Cincinnati).

2002: India International Series (Chennai), Spain International Series (Mallorca).

2004: Canada Tennis Masters Series (Toronto).