A special, winning partnership

Print edition : June 19, 1999

The success and strength of the Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi team, the greatest Indian doubles pair, springs from their belief in each other.

IT was a historic occasion for Indian tennis when Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi won the men's doubles title at the French Open championships. The four Grand Slam tournaments - the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open - are ack nowledged as summits of the tennis world and winning a title in any one of them brings international acclaim and recognition. Paes' and Bhupathi's feat - they are the first Indian pair to win a Grand Slam title - is a matter of great pride and joy.

So often in the past year have Paes and Bhupathi failed narrowly to win a Grand Slam doubles title that one was beginning to despair and wonder if they would ever pull it off. In 1998, which was a big year for them, they were in the semi-finals of three Grand Slam tournaments - the Australian Open, the French Open and the U.S. Open - and won a record eight events on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tour. This year, at the Australian Open, they were a step closer to the summit but fell at th e last hurdle, losing narrowly to the strong combination of Patrick Rafter and Jonas Bjorkman in the final. During the ATP tournament in Chennai in April, there was talk of a possible split between Paes and Bhupathi. Happily the boys stayed together, won the title in Chennai and have now won their first Grand Slam men's doubles title.

Leander Paes (left) and Mahesh Bhupathi with their trophy after winning the men's doubles title at the French Open championships at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris on June 6.-LAURENT REBOURS/AP

The Paes-Bhupathi team's record is proof of the fact that this victory was no flash in the pan, and the two deserve the highest praise for their perseverance and application. In their last three matches in the French Open, they achieved victories with a mark of authority rarely seen in the highly competitive world of doubles tennis. In three successive rounds, they beat Ellis Ferriera and Rick Leach, Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillstrom, and finally Goran Ivanisevic and Jeff Tarango in straight sets. Thes e matches were won not on chancy tie-breakers but with breaks of serve, which emphasised their dominance in all the six sets they played.

In the rain-interrupted final on June 5, Paes and Bhupathi were a set up (6-2) against Ivanisevic and Tarango, with Bhupathi to serve at 4-5 in the second set. Not wanting to start the next day serving to save the set after spending a sleepless night thi nking of what fate had in store for them, the Indian boys wisely hustled through a quick game, in which Bhupathi plonked down four first serves to tie the score at 5-5, at which point play was abandoned for the day. The overnight pressure told on the vol atile Tarango, and the next day the Indians broke his service and wrapped up the match within a few minutes.

After this victory, top-ranked Paes and Bhupathi are a whopping 270 points ahead of the second-ranked team of Leach and Ferreira. Their No.1 position seems unassailable for some time as they will not be defending any points until October. If anything, th ey are bound to pick up more points during this period.

Wimbledon is near at hand and much will be expected from Paes and Bhupathi. But the fast grass courts with a low bounce are not their best surface. Bhupathi's lethal and consistent double-handed backhand, which makes the openings for Paes' interceptions, is at its best on high-bouncing slower surfaces. On grass, Paes and Bhupathi are vulnerable against big-serving teams which can hold serve comfortably and then blast away and 'go for broke' on their service returns hoping to string a few returns togethe r and make the vital breakthrough. This is what happened to them in Wimbledon last year, when they lost in the first round.

When I asked Leander about the areas of their game in which there is scope for improvement, he said, "I think my service can improve, and Mahesh could move better and intercept more." But there is something special about their partnership, although it is difficult to identify just what it is. It goes beyond just combining well and runs deeper than the high-fives and chest butts we have seen them do. Possibly the strength comes from their belief in each other.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in action at the French Open. Paes and Bhupathi are the first Indian pair to win a Grand Slam title.-LAURENT REBOURS/AP

Normally, doubles partners have different, complementary roles to play. One partner is solid and keeps the partnership on an even keel with consistent play (Bhupathi), while the other is the opportunist who puts pressure on the opposition with frequent i nterceptions and takes chances - a swashbuckling role tailor-made for Paes. The fact that Paes is considered to be one of the quickest men on the circuit, if not the quickest in the world, more than makes up for any of his other shortcomings. Together th e Indians are a formidable team.

For Paes and Bhupathi, their present position in the doubles world is rich with promise. The 'Woodies' - Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde - had a long reign, but are now showing signs of cracking up: they have been losing to scratch pairs. Jacco Elting h and Paul Haarhuis are no longer around: Eltingh has retired and Haarhuis is looking for a new partner. Rafter and Bjorkman are good, but being top-class, highly ranked singles players they cannot focus exclusively on the doubles. If Paes and Bhupathi c an stick together and keep working hard they could dominate the doubles world for a couple of years or even longer.

Soon after the Indian pair's victory in France, the BBC rang me up to ask me if in my opinion Paes and Bhupathi were the best Indian doubles team ever. "Are they better than the Amritraj brothers, Mukherjea and Lall, and Ramanathan Krishnan and Kumar?" I was asked. I repeated what Harry Hopman had told me many years ago: "The final verdict is given by the record books," and so far Paes and Bhupathi are the only Indian duo to have won a Grand Slam title.

Only one other performance, which can compare with a Grand Slam title, comes to my mind. This was when Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaideep Mukherjea teamed up to beat Tony Roche and John Newcombe, one of the greatest doubles teams of all time, in a Davis Cup final against Australia in Melbourne. That too was a summit of the tennis world, but one swallow does not a summer make, and Paes and Bhupathi must be rated as the greatest Indian doubles team.

Naresh Kumar is a former Davis Cup player.
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