United they stand, divided they stand!

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, the finest Indian doubles team of all time.-Pic. V SUDERSHAN

Apart from the continuing heroics of the natural born warrior Leander Paes in singles, it is the success of the Bhupathi/Paes team even in emotionally challenging times that has been the biggest bonus for Indian tennis over the last few seasons, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

IT's that time of the year. It's that sort of season. And we have started hearing all the familiar sounds, the familiar chorus.

They're back together. They have the world at their feet. The ear-to-ear smile is back on the face of Indian tennis. An Olympic gold medal (Athens, 2004) is there for the asking.

These are sounds of the autumn, this autumn, in Indian sport. And they are no different from the winter cacophony that preceded the Indian cricket team's World Cup campaign in South Africa.

Of course, there is no greed-driven corporate hype — such as in cricket — to the latest sound bytes on the finest Indian doubles team of all time, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. The media over-kill this time, not long after the once world-beating pair notched up yet another Davis Cup victory — against New Zealand at Kolkata last fortnight — is fuelled more by plain wishful thinking and rank optimism.

Attempts were indeed made at the South Club in Kolkata by a few well meaning former players to try and convince the two top Indian players to renew their once-successful partnership on the ATP Tour and in the Grand Slam events.

But, the point is, too much has been made out of the odd hint here, the odd hopeful statement there. For, the fact remains that both Bhupathi and Paes are committed this entire season to different partners — Paes has been doing wonderfully well with David Rikl of the Czech Republic and Bhupathi has teamed up again with Max Miryni of Belarus, with whom he won the U.S.Open title last year — and Team India will be Team India only in Davis Cup tennis, for the moment.

``We did talk about it (getting back together on the circuit),'' Bhupathi told me on phone the morning after the victory against New Zealand, stepping out of the airplane at London Heathrow en route to Estoril.

``But it is early days yet. There is a lot of hopeful pushing and prodding right now. We have decided to talk about it at the end of the year again. If it happens, you will be the first to know,'' said Bhupathi.

Paes himself was non-commital about the possibility of getting back together with Bhupathi on the ATP Tour. "David and I are playing some good tennis and I am concentrating on this season alone right now,'' he said on phone from Kolkata a few hours after winning two rubbers in a day against New Zealand.

In the event, right now, however well meaning their attempts might be vis a vis reuniting the two players, former players like Jaideep Mukherjea, who initiated the moves, should be happy that Bhupathi and Paes continue to be as good as they are when playing for the country.

It is indeed amazing that Bhupathi and Paes, who have won three Grand Slam titles together — two at the French and one at Wimbledon — have not lost a single Davis Cup rubber together since the first hints of trouble were spotted in their partnership.

This only goes to show how thoroughly professional and remarkably mature these two men are, apart from the fact that as a team they are a class apart from most others at the international level.

Since playing together for the first time in Davis Cup against Croatia in Delhi on September 23, 1995, when the pair beat Goran Ivanisevic and Sasa Hirzon in four sets, Bhupathi and Paes have lost just two matches in the competition.

Both those losses came in 1996, the first to the world class pair of Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis in Jaipur and the second to Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklaus Kulti of Sweden at Kolkata a few months later.

Since then, Bhupathi and Paes have won 10 Davis Cup rubbers in a row, a majority of them rather handily, through seasons of relative calm and through turbulent times — which goes to prove that neither man has let personal differences of opinion reflect on peformance on the court.

In my mind, apart from the continuing heroics of the natural born warrior Paes in singles, this — the success of the Bhupathi/Paes team even in emotionally challenging times — has been the biggest bonus for Indian tennis over the last few seasons.

What this means in the context of the future is this: should the two men give themselves some quality time together ahead of the Athens Olympics, they would stand as good a chance as any other top rated pair when it comes to winning the gold medal.

Having watched the two men from their very first Davis Cup match through their Grand Slam triumphs and several other conquests at the highest levels, I am sure that the two men are so good in each other's company that they don't need to have played two or three full seasons together to go into Athens as serious contenders for the gold.

Having said that, it would certainly be a huge investment in view of Athens should Bhupathi and Paes decide to team up next season. This will mean the pair would have played three Grand Slam tournaments and several ATP Tour events ahead of the Olympics which run from August 13 to 29 next year.

For, the point about Davis Cup in the present context is, India seldom gets to play the heavyweights — perhaps once a year in the World Group qualifying round — and Bhupathi and Paes do not get the chance to test their skills against the best in the business on a consistent basis.

Two years ago, one of the greatest doubles players of all time, the Australian Mark Woodforde said at Wimbledon that it was such a shame that the two Indians had split up.

``I thought the one team that had the chance to dominate the game like us (himself and Todd Woodbridge) were Leander and Mahesh. They should be playing together,'' said Woodforde.

It is perhaps too late now for Bhupathi and Paes to match the records of the Woodies, having lost crucial years. But, to this day, the two men can be counted among the five or six top doubles players in the game, individually, while as a pair, when the going is good, there may be none quite like them anywhere in the world.