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Splitsville

Third factor in Indian tennis

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FALSE DAWN: Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes promised much with their comeback, but will they still remain India's best bet at the Olympic Games?

The buzz of questions hovering over Indian tennis has hit a decisively sharper note. A little like the chill in the morning air. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, the world No. 4 pairing, are facing breakpoint. Again. This time there is a third factor in the make-up, break-up series that has Bollywood masala and Hollywood moves stamped all over it. Rohan Bopanna, the other Indian after Bhupathi and Paes in the top-10 of the individual doubles ranking, is the new angle to an old story. You can call it the triangle.

Splitsville, in its third-fourth-fifth association for the Lee-Hesh combine, if that is indeed where the bromance is headed, is a distinctly better place this time round. The duo has handled the situation fairly, like men working at solutions rather than boys in a vengeful streetfight. It must be said that the past week has seen more dignity than drama, which is new in a Paes-Bhupathi spat, littered as it has been in the past with dirty linen.

At their peak, Bhupathi-Paes - a fusion of classic notes and rock n' roll;one had serve, the other had nerve, one had range, the other had returns, one had power, the other had pace - were the hope and hurrah of Indian sports in the '90s before they fell apart in a disappointing public charade, that had repeat episodes over the next decade. Despite everything - faults and double faults - when Paes, 38, and Bhupathi, 37, came together at the start of the 2011 season they promised much, choosing action over words.

In January, under a brilliantly-lit Chennai sky, the Indian Express came back from the dead to beat Canada's Frank Dancevic and Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka before a screeching-screaming half-house at the Nungambakkam Stadium in a first round match of the Chennai Open. It was vintage warfare on ageing legs. The talk and the walk. Paes and Bhupathi were not the better team that night, they were the believers. And with them we learnt to believe. All over again.

If the tennis grapevine is to be believed, they are going different ways again in 2012, at least on the ATP Tour.

With a tournament still to go on the 2011 calendar, the season-ending ATP World Tour Final, beginning in London on Sunday, it is understandable why Paes and Bhupathi are brushing aside talk of a split. They even came together for a couple of friendly practice sessions in Mumbai before boarding flights to the English capital on Wednesday night. Even though they haven't yet announced that they will be parting ways next season, the permutations and combinations seemed to have been worked out. Bhupathi will most likely go with his fellow Bangalorean, the 6-ft-4-in Bopanna, who was first tagged as Paes' partner in the Olympic year. The Kolkatan's partner, however, is as yet unidentified even though the name of the big-hitting, big-serving 29-year-old Pole Lukasz Kubot is doing the rounds.

Tennis is an individual sport. It is the player's business, and no one else's, who he chooses to play with on the professional tour. The right to question or argue doesn't come into play here. Consequently the 'what' and 'why' of the partnership facing breakpoint becomes irrelevant.

On the other side of the private-public divide is the 2012 London Olympics. The All India Tennis Association, rather its selection committee, has a job to do. It must ensure that India's two best doubles players, whoever they may be, share the court at the All England Club, the venue of the Olympic event, next July.

Between now and the Olympics Games, however, there is that small matter of India's Davis Cup campaign, which in a sense takes care of itself. SP Misra's side have a first round bye in the Asia-Oceania Group 1 contest. In the second round in April, they play the winners of the New Zealand-Uzbekistan clash. Uzbekistan should come through and it will be a cracker of a tie, where India will need her four best players at the top of their game to progress. Somdev Devvarman and Bopanna will likely play singles and Bhupathi and Paes, fresh legs and ferocious element, can tilt the balance on Day Two of the tie. The singles players will be back on court on Day Three. Plain and simple.

The Olympic campaign isn't all that straightforward. As it stands, all three Indians Bhupathi (No. 7), Paes (No. 8) and Bopanna (No. 10) are ranked in the top ten of the individual doubles ranking, making them eligible for the Summer Games. If the trio holds on to these rankings or better them by next June, India could well have two teams in the Olympic doubles competition, with the third player partnering Somdev. The selection committee, which includes Davis Cup non-playing captain Misra, must decide beforehand the criteria for selection. Will it be rankings? Or form? Or will they go with reputation.

It may be worthwhile to take a closer look at the situation which doesn't entirely look good for Bhupathi-Paes.

They, however, are to blame for much of it, given that they played a limited schedule in 2011, the pre-Olympic year. The doubles heavyweights have such a wide range of activities that they are involved in - from acting to producing movies, to managing businesses and young families - that sometimes they find themselves on the edge when juggling the life of a professional athlete.

Both men have at different times in the year acknowledged that they may have played too little on the Tour this year, but were unsure if they could've stretched their schedules any more. However, you cannot just show up and expect to win, not even in doubles. Paes has played just 16 tournaments this year while Bhupathi has logged in 19;the figures count as the least number of events players in the top 10 have played this season. The top-ranked American twins, Bob and Mike Bryan, have played in 24 tournaments while Bopanna has played 27.

The numbers then are stacked against the former No. 1 pairing, which has won three Grand Slam titles. The high-voltage combine enjoyed a stirring first quarter in 2011, starting with a title win in Chennai, following it up with a charge into the final of the Australian Open and then winning the Cincinnati Masters and rising to the No. 1 ranking in April. They struggled thereafter with second round exits at the French Open and Wimbledon and a quarterfinal loss at the US Open. Last week, they lost in the first round of the Paris Masters, a tournament that Bopanna and his Pakistani partner Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi won.

On the other hand, Bopanna has done precious little in the first half of the year, falling in the third round of the Australian Open, the quarterfinal of the French Open and the first round of Wimbledon. Consequently, the 31-year-old Bopanna has a virtual free run in the first half next year with few points to defend until June, when the cut is made for the Olympics. While Bopanna has everything to gain early in the season and could well climb further in the rankings, Paes and Bhupathi have a mountain of points to defend and may drop. None of this is Bopanna's fault. He has placed himself nicely and you wouldn't expect any less from a professional athlete.

Still, outside of injury and hopeless form that could send their ranking on a downward spiral, it's difficult to see the selection committee go for anyone outside of the seasoned Lee-Hesh combine as the No. 1 doubles pair for London. Should they make it, it will be their fifth Olympic appearance as a team after starting out in Atlanta in '96, where Paes won the singles bronze. The Indian Express has a proven track record and they are time-tested. Only maverick skill and heady performance can outweigh that. It's not impossible, but it's not going to be easy.

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