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You just double faulted
The joke is on Indian tennis as the legendary doubles combine of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes let personal differences come in the way of the nation's Olympic ambitions.
The last lines of the Bhupathi-Paes soap opera will be played out in the coming weeks. No matter which way the All India Tennis Association swings during this weekend's selection committee meeting in Bangalore, the curtains will come down on the Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes saga at the July-August Olympics in London. Done and dusted. One way or the other, either playing together or separately, London 2012 is the finish line.
For a while at the end of 2010, when Lee and Hesh, or 'BhoopatiPaes' as chair umpires around the world liked to call them, announced yet another comeback attempt, this time with the 2012 Games in mind, it was believed that the twosome, whose combined age is approaching 80, were joining hands for that last waltz, standing as they were in the December of their careers. A last dance to wipe out the bitter memories of some poor moves in their youth.
Indian tennis was smiling again. Twelve months later, without word or warning, at the end of a season in which the twosome had achieved the number one ranking, they chose to go different ways. This time just eight months before the Olympic Games. Like John McEnroe would've said, 'You can't be serious!'
The reasons for their split have been chronicled many times over, which in a nutshell reads: Paes wanted a younger partner on the tour. Bopanna, with an eye on the Olympics, approached Paes, who agreed initially, but later claimed he was playing the Olympics with Bhupathi. Bhupathi and Bopanna then decided to partner on the Tour and stake their claim to playing the Olympics together. It all seemed to be working just right for the first few months of 2012, when Paes set the circuit on fire in tandem with the dependable Czech Radek Stepanek. Bhupathi and Bopanna ploughed ahead, comfortably making the cut as a team for the Olympics.
Paes, ranked No. 7 in the world and the most decorated Indian on the Grand Slam stage, however, is without a top-tier partner for the Olympics. It was a point the Mumbai-based athlete-actor should've considered when he chose to break away from Bhupathi. In April when Paes partnered Bopanna in India's zonal Davis Cup tie against an unheralded Uzbek pairing, they lost the match in four sets and one option was buried.
In what appears to be a leaf out of a Desperate Housewives act, Paes' father Dr Vece, Olympic hockey bronze medallist and sports medicine expert, pleaded his son's case in a letter to AITA general secretary Anil Khanna. While stressing that he wasn't writing as an 'emotional father', rather as a 'Davis Cup team member (support staff) from 1991', he listed his son's achievements, including his Davis Cup win/loss record, medals won at the Olympics and Asian Games and Grand Slam titles.
He wrote, "Significantly, Mahesh's last Grand Slam men's doubles win was in 2002. Leander since 2002 has won four men's doubles Grand Slams. Leander is our number one player in men's and mixed doubles by current and previous ranking and performances. Leander is the only Indian player, male or female, in the top 10 of the rankings, thus qualifying him for a direct entry with the option of choosing his partner. The selection committee and Leander should decide on his choice of partner. "
Hot on the heels of the good doctor's note to the AITA, Bhupathi's long-standing American coach Scott Davidoff, who has also worked with Paes when the veteran partnered Bhupathi last year, shot off a letter to Khanna saying he had an opinion to share since he was the only person with a ringside view.
After recounting how he had worked to get Bhupathi and Paes together at the end of the 2010 season, Davidoff wrote, "I felt I needed to write to you concerning the history of these players, since I see it on a daily basis travelling 30 weeks a year with them. It takes trust, honesty, and respect to compete together at the highest level. At the moment, and for the past eight months, there has been none of that. In eight months, Leander has not said one word to Mahesh and Sania (Mirza) and only to Rohan and that was the week they played Davis Cup together in April. Last week, while waiting for the mixed doubles final at the hallway of Roland Garros, Leander walked by Mahesh and Sania and didn't even wish them. This is sad as we have three or four great tennis players coming out of India and there is no communication or support for each other. "
In case you're wondering, the joke is on Indian tennis. And the world is laughing.
While the Bhupathi-Paes combine gave the game in India plenty to smile about - 25 Grand Slam titles between the two is indeed a rich haul - their off-court whining was exasperating, making for the theatre of the ugly. While fans have lost count of the number of times the two have split and come back, the verbal duels, played out in the media, and the politicking hasn't escaped the fraternity.
The duo, with contrasting styles of play and opposing standpoints, has run a knife down Indian tennis, ripping it in two with everyone, including the Davis Cup support staff, taking sides. The sad part is that neither man has gained from the big fight. It's a different story, however, for the Anil Khanna-led AITA, which chose to pander and play politics rather than take a stand for the betterment of the game in India, benefiting hugely from its warring super stars.
The story of Bhupathi and Paes as a partnership will forever be punctuated with a tear. Two boys who started a journey claiming to be closer than blood brothers have now grown into men who won't even exchange a common courtesy.
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