It is not difficult to pick up two tennis players in India, whose approach shifted from wearing the national colours in their prime to becoming completely selfish in recent times. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are two of the same kind. Don’t make the mistake of counting their exploits in ATP and Grand Slam tournaments as playing for the country. They play for themselves and yes; for enhancing their personal wealth. In the last ten years, these two have only played either Men’s or Mixed doubles and their partners have been foreign nationals, carefully selected to give them some edge in their matches. Such complex individuals cannot be the role models to young tennis players, as claimed in an article on these pages, some days back.
Well, long in the distant past, things were different. The guys were inseparable friends and played singles matches and combined so well in doubles that, for some time, they were unbeatable by the best doubles pair in the world. But even from the very start, their individual personalities were poles apart. While Paes was an outgoing type, Bhupathi was drawn inward unto himself. There was a sharp contrast in their playing styles as well. While Bhupathi had a way of dealing with the best of service from the other side, Paes athletically floated all over the court. Such diversity confused the opponents and Paes and Bhupathi remained the top doubles players for a few years.
Paes was senior to Bhupathi and dealt pretty well with attention focused on him. Bhupathi, on the other hand, was a man of few words. Winner of the Bronze Medal in Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Paes was a few notches above Bhupathi on many other counts. But while Paes had the spotlight, Bhupathi enjoyed the confidence of his teammates, who had noticeable reservations on Paes. All this did not affect their doubles game, since they started playing together in 1997. Their amazing on-court harmony led them to create a record of reaching the finals of all the grand slams in 1999 and winning the French open and the Wimbledon that year. In Davis cup, they had a 25-2 record in doubles.
Just when the pair was slated to take this dominance to a new high, things began to sour. Starting with a small disagreement, the relations between the two deteriorated to the extent that they stopped seeing eye to eye. Many people say that Bhupathi’s coach Enrico Piperno started it all. No one knows the exact reasons though. Since then the two have played with different partners winning multiple Grand Slam titles.
The two have also been involved in needless public display of acrimony against each other. In Doha Asian games, Paes questioned Bhupathi’s attitude in playing for the country, while Bhupathi led the player’s revolt against Paes’ captaincy of the Davis cup team in 2009. Such behavior by senior players is not conducive to the nurturing of young talents. On the contrary, Paes and Bhupathi have alienated youngsters into two camps. Therefore, when the Indian team was being selected for London Olympics, no less a person than India’s sports minister had to make an appeal to the players to keep the country’s honour as the topmost priority. Regardless, Paes felt slighted by having been paired with world no. 209 Vishnu Vardhan and as if it was not enough, Sania Mirza declared she was being used as a bait to pacify Paes. Such utterances are wholeheartedly deplorable and show the rot that has set in. It was over a year ago that these things happened but as long as Paes and Bhupathi are around, no improvement is likely to come about in Indian tennis.
The story of Paes and Bhupathi is an unfortunate and sad saga of two highly talented men, for whom personal egos get preference over the game or national honour. Indian tennis has never been in such shambles.