September 16, 2005

A grand slam - nation faults in not giving an ace his due

H Natarajan

Ramanathan Krishnan is deservingly immortalised, among other things, for his two Wimbledon semi-final forays, for achieving a world ranking of No 4 and for powering India to the Davis Cup final. Vijay Amritraj’s two quarter-finals finishes at Wimbledon and the US Open and his stellar roles in piloting India to two Davis Cup finals also elicits lavish praise from Indians. Leander Paes is revered as an icon for his Riplesque performances in Davis Cup, his medal-winning effort at the Olympics and his exploits as doubles player on the pro circuit. And now, Sania Mirza has found herself in the swirl of public adulation and media frenzy. Amid all the hype and hoopla, a quiet hero who has achieved far, far more than Sania and who has won more Grand Slams titles at the senior level than all Indians put together, has gone virtually ignored.

Mahesh Bhupathi, in my opinion, ranks among the galaxy of the greatest in Indian sports like Vishwanathan Anand, Dhyan Chand, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Prakash Padukone, PT Usha, Geet Sethi, Ramanathan Krishnan and Leander Paes. But for reasons as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle, he has not received a fraction of the credit that he richly deserves – neither from the people nor from the government by way of the bigger national awards.

Tennis has witnessed some fantastic doubles combinations like John Newcombe-Tony Roche, Bob Hewitt-Frew McMillan, John McEnroe-Peter Fleming, Ken Flach-Robert Seguso, Paul McNamara-Paul McNamee, Todd Woodbridge-Mark Woodforde, Jacco Eltingh-Paul Haarhuis, but only one men’s tandem in the Open era has achieved the feat of entering the finals of the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open doubles in the same calendar year - the Paes-Bhupathi combine in 1999. One has to go before the Open era - 54 years, to be precise - when Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman last achieved the feat. They not only won the Grand Slam but also almost repeated it the following year. Their hopes were dashed in the US Open final by Merv Rose and Vic Seixas who won 3-6, 10-8, 10-8, 6-8, 8-6.

Comparing doubles partners is hazardous and even unfair, given that it’s a team effort. Successful partnerships are built around two players who bring in diverse skills. A player seeks critical value that’s lacking or absent in his game by finding a partner who possesses it. Paes’s feline reflexes make him a terror at the net, but what he lacks is a big serve. Bhupathi does not have the foot-speed but has a big arsenal in his powerful serve.

However, if one were to dispassionately view the overall doubles careers in isolation, historical truths places Bhupathi a shade above Paes. Big-time success on the pro tour came Paes’s way after he got Bhupathi to team up with him. If Paes’s subsequent success was a coincidence, then the fact remains that Bhupathi has found greater success – even if marginal – than Paes at the highest level since the two decided to part ways.

The divorce was the tennis equivalent of the Charles-Diana split. An association that captured the hearts of an entire nation to start with but later degenerated into a spat that made copious headlines. But like the Royal couple, the two came together when other emotional interests begged a reunion – even if temporary. Their children’s interests saw Charles and Diana make temporary truces while Paes and Bhupathi put their personal differences behind for the sake of their country’s honour in Davis Cup and Olympics.

Apart from his four Grand Slam men’s doubles titles, Bhupathi has won five mixed doubles titles with five different partners in three of the four Grand Slams. The role of the male in the mixed event is far greater, something that was evident in the recent US Open mixed doubles final where Bhupathi covered up the shortcomings of the leggy stunner Daniela Hantuchova. And that title with Hantuchova, if I am not mistaken, puts Bhupathi’s in the third spot of Grand Slam mixed doubles titles winners, behind Frank Sedgman and Todd Woodbridge who won eight and seven mixed doubles titles respectively.

The men’s tour is separate from the women’s tour and hence mixed doubles partners do not get to practice together to develop the mental tuning and chemistry that’s so vital in doubles play. Bhupathi’s overall success as a doubles player is a tribute to his adaptability to different partners and various surfaces.

He won his first mixed doubles title at the French Open with Rika Hiraki. It was a fortuitous meeting with the Japanese, a day before the deadline, that saw the two join forces. There is a similar story to his teaming up Mary Pierce at this year’s Wimbledon. Hiraki, like Ai Sugiyama and Elena Likhovtseva later, had never won a Grand Slam till she partnered the Indian. Chemistry plays a big part in doubles play and Bhupathi seems to be a master alchemist in that respect.

The Bhupathi saga on the ATP Tour is enduring despite increasing involvement in his event and player management company, Globosport. Last year, he finished in the doubles top 10 for the sixth time in seven years, won over 50 matches for the third successive year and clinched five doubles titles with four different partners.

Almost all of us, young and old, know the famous dialogues of the magnum opus, Sholay. But how many know the people who wrote the script for Veeru, Jai, Gabbar and others? Paes’s towering presence in the Indian Davis Cup makes one forget Bhupathi’s role. Every time when you see the scoreboard 3-2 in India’s favour, inevitably you will find that Bhupathi had played a pivotal role in clinching the decisive doubles. A case in point being the 3-2 victory of a Goran Ivanisevic-powered Croatia in the 1995 World Group qualifier. When India lost 2-3 to Great Britain in Nottingham, Bhupathi had a hand in helping India win both the points. He had extended Tim Henman in the singles, won the doubles with Paes and then beat Chris Wilkinson in the reverse singles. Even in the absence of Paes, Bhupathi’s presence has been formidable in doubles as he proved when he and rookie Syed Fazuluddin took Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillstrom to five sets on clay in a World Group qualifier match against Sweden at Bastad.

Bhupathi also had his moments to cherish in Davis Cup singles play. When India pipped Netherlands 3-2 in the World Group 1st round in 1996 despite losing the doubles to Haarhuis and Eltingh, it was because Bhupathi won both his singles against top world-ranked players Jan Siemerink and Jacco Eltingh. Then there was his straight-set victory over Italy’s Davide Sanguinetti in a World Group tie on clay at Genoa. When you also take into account some of the close matches he played with players like Marcelos Rios and Carlos Moya on different occasions, you know that he had it in him as a singles player to reckon with.

Bhupathi has expressed a desire to win one more Grand Slam title to take his tally to ten. No male player has won the mixed doubles at all four of the Grand Slams and it would be nice if he could achieve that by winning next year at the Australian Open. That would be killing two birds with one stone as the year’s first Grand Slam is the only one of the Big Four to elude him. My guess is that he will try his hardest to be in shape and top form to win that coveted honour by roping in the best available partner. Maybe, then, he can think of partnering his protégé Sania Mirza and moulding her future.

It was said that the greatest doubles team ever was "John McEnroe with anyone". Maybe, when Bhupathi wins with another Grand Slam with yet another girl, they may say the same for the Indian’s play in the mixed doubles!

Romanticism can wait. In the meanwhile, it’s time the nation wakes up to the achievements of a player who reached the pinnacle of what is a truly global sport and has been highly successful year after year after year.

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