October 13, 2006

Olympic dream may still save this troubled marriage

By H Natarajan

The Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi team has been like the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor marriage or, to cite a more recent but a relatively less glamorous example, that of Karishma Kapoor with Sanjay Kapur. Like the celebrity marriages, the Paes-Bhupathi partnership is very high on the glam stakes, very high on the achievers’ stakes but one that’s as steady as a yacht in choppy mid-sea.

It was just six months back, Paes and Bhupathi had recreated some of their old magic at the Brabourne Stadium. The atmosphere was electric and their chemistry special. The two had men sunk their differences to espouse India’s cause. The chest-butting, the adrenalin flow and the patriotism that was awash at the hallowed venue was pure theatre. Like Burton-Taylor and Karishma-Sanjay’s now-off, now-on marriages, Paes and Bhupathi’s marriage of convenience, too, rekindled hopes in the hearts of incorrigible optimists of the game in India.

The realists, however, believed that the two men would never like to play on the same side of the net on the professional circuit. But nobody doubted that when it came to playing for the country, they would set aside their well-documented differences and give their best. It was much like a separated couple coming together at their child’s school on Parents’ Day – a temporary truce.

It was a complete shock, thus, to hear Bhupathi announce the other day that he no longer wished to play for the country. Bhupathi is reticent person and a master of précis. He is undemonstrative – on or off the court – and the very anti-thesis of Paes. When such people get hurt, they prefer to suffer in silence than make a public show of it.

It’s obvious that his reaction has much to do with the All India Tennis Association (AITA) decision to team up Sania Mirza with Paes for the Doha Asian Games in December. It was the trigger to the eventual decision of not playing again for the country.

"Of course, I am surprised. I'm not sure whose decision it was. All I know is that everybody is pretending it's the other person's decision but I know that I wasn't consulted," Bhupathi said, uncharacteristically echoing his disappointment, when he heard of the Sania-Paes partnership for the Asian Games.

While selection matters are technically the prerogative of the selectors, it’s nevertheless a known fact that senior players call the shots in matters of selection – be it player, venues and surfaces – when it comes to playing in Davis Cup or representing the country in important events like the Asian Games and Olympics.

Obviously Bhupathi was not given the due his stature as a very senior player in the team and his status as one of the greatest players ever to play tennis for India deserved. The AITA, more than anybody else, should take the blame for this.

The decision also caused embarrassment to him as a businessman. Globosport, the company he owns, manages Sania and it must not have been very pleasant to get news of his client and fellow-player in the manner he heard.

It was a huge faux pas by the AITA that has, yet again, created another unfortunate situation which will undoubtedly hurt the country.

Bhupathi is justified at being hurt over the fact that he was not consulted over the pairing for the Doha Asian Games, but is he justified when it comes to assessing the matter on pure playing merits? He may not have had the most productive of years on the ATP circuit, but he won the China Open in Beijing and the Kingfisher Open this month, where he beat Paes and Aisam Qureishi.

But the biggest argument in Bhupathi’s favour is his success in the mixed doubles with an assortment of women at the Grand Slams. His title triumphs have come over 10 years and his winning partners include Rika Hiraki, Ai Sugiyama, Elena Likhovtseva, Mary Pierce, Daniela Hantuchova and Martina Hingis.

A man known for making politically correct statements, Paes also made some points that are not without merits. He told a TV channel that during the last Asian Games, Bhupathi decided to team up with Manisha Malhotra, who was the then No 1 women’s player in India. Paes, who was the top men’s player in the country, was paired up with a very young Sania Mirza.

"I did not say anything…I was given this young, talented girl who hit the ball well and we got the bronze," Paes explained. "I think that in any situation you are put in you are going to make the best out of it and that is something Mahesh should see," Paes added.

Paes has said that he want to clear the air and assuage the feelings of Bhupathi. The apex body for the game in India has also said that it wants Bhupathi. But only time will tell if Bhupathi is willing to let bygone be bygones and turn out for the country again.

Bhupathi has won the mixed doubles at all the four majors. He has also won three of the four men’s doubles Grand Slams – the one missing being the Australian Open. It’s understandable that he would like that title before he retires, but it’s difficult to believe that he would put winning at Melbourne ahead of the Olympic gold.

It’s an open secret that if there is one thing that both Bhupathi dearly wants, it’s is an Olympic gold. For that to happen, partnering Paes is the only option. Bhupathi knows that the differences that kept them apart and severely limited their playing together as a team ahead of the Athens Olympics cost them a medal – they lost to Croats Mario Ancic (Bhupathi’s partner in the triumph at Mumbai) and Ivan Ljubicic 16-14 in the third set. They did not just lose the match; they also lost the chance to win the bronze medal. Obviously Bhupathi does not want to repeat the mistake in a final bid to gain the coveted medal.

Just last month he was quoted as saying: “Both (he and Paes) have a common goal, that of bringing home an Olympic medal. The (2008 Beijing) Olympics is still some time away, we will be preparing for it together maybe next year.”

Bhupathi was hoping for a grand reunion with Paes on the ATP Tour in 2007 that would have given them all the match practice they needed as a tandem going into the Olympics. But Paes, apparently, has committed to Martin Damm for 2007. The Paes-Damm pair won the US Open men’s doubles, besides making the final of the Australian Open and the semi-final at Wimbledon. They have also made it to the year-ending Masters where the top eight teams will meet at Shanghai.

Paes’s position is also understandable. But he also knows that if he goes ahead with his decision to partner Damm next year, it could be the end of Bhupathi as a player for India. It also means the end of his own – and Bhupathi’s – hopes for an Olympic medal.

The country comes first before everything else for Paes. Few people play with the kind of emotion that Paes does for his country. And it’s this passionate patriotism, I am hopeful, that will bring him and Bhupathi together again and write another glorious chapter in Indian tennis history.

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