Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I have been prompted into writing this by watching Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi team up together once again in Men's Doubles Tennis and recreate a bit of their old magic on the courts of Melbourne in the Australian Open Grand Slam event after winning their year-opener at the Chennai Open.

First, lets have a look at a few numbers...

Leander Paes has won 12 Grand Slam titles - 6 Men's Doubles and 6 Mixed Doubles.
Mahesh Bhupathi has won 11 Grand Slam titles - 4 Men's Doubles and 7 Mixed Doubles.

In the Open Era, Leander's 6 titles ties him with 4 others at the 11th place for the maximum number of Grand Slam Men's Doubles titles. In the Open Era, Bhupathi is tied at the 20th place with 8 others for the same.

As for Mixed Doubles, Mahesh's 7 titles is the joint highest number won by any male player in the Open Era, while only the American legend Martina Navratilova's 10 titles exceed his achievements in this field. Interestingly, all of Mahesh's 7 Mixed Doubles Grand Slam titles have come with different partners! Leander's 6 Mixed Doubles titles ties him to 4th place amongst male players in the Open Era and 6th place if the female players are included. Additionally, Mahesh also has completed a Career Grand Slam in Mixed Doubles tennis... a feat achieved only by 4 other male and 4 other female players in the history of this sport.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have played together a lot of times. Their first Doubles title win came in an ATP 250 Series event at the Chennai Open in 1997. Following that, they went on to win 3 Grand Slam titles together (2 in France and 1 at Wimbledon). In 1999, this pair featured in the finals of all 4 Grand Slam events... winning the 2 at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. By the end of the decade, Paes and Bhupathi had won 15 Men's Doubles titles together, including the 2 Grand Slams in 1999 and 3 ATP 1000 Masters titles. For most part of 1999, this pair was ranked the World No. 1 in Men's Doubles tennis.

So dominant and aggressive were they in their game together that it prompted the legendary pair of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge (together known as the Woodies) to remark that this pair will take over their place in Men's Doubles tennis after their retirement. To put their prediction into context, Todd Woodbridge has 16 Men's Doubles Grand Slam titles and 6 Mixed Doubles Grand Slam titles, whereas Mark Woodforde has 12 and 5 respectively. Both of them have achieved a Career Grand Slam in Men's Doubles as well as Mixed Doubles events.

Over the decade of 2000s, personal differences and rifts kept Paes and Bhupathi from playing together except for the Indian cause at events like Davis Cup, Asian Games, Olympics, Commonwealth Games and for tournaments in preparation of such events. The Lee-Hesh pair, fondly known as the Indian Express, derailed more often than it was on track during this decade.

However, when they did get down to play together, they somehow always managed to get impressive results. Be it winning the Canada Masters in 2004 or being the runners-up at Ordina Open in 2008 as also the twin Gold Medals in Asian Games of Busan 2002 and Doha 2006.

Recently while watching their 2nd Round win at the Australian Open, I felt strangely nostalgic when I saw their performances... especially in the 2nd set when they played some stunning points and recreated that old magic of chest-thumping... a celebration that captured India in late 1990s and early 2000s like nothing ever seen before outside of cricket! I had almost forgotten how brilliant they could be as a pair while both of them are attacking from the net... and how fulfilling it is as their fan to see their helpless opposition looking bemused!

Watching them play today leaves a bit of a mourning inside of people who have followed their careers closely. The Woodies weren't far off the mark in their remarks and their predictions might well have been true today had the Indian Express continued playing together. When I watch the rivalry between Federer and Nadal in Men's Singles tennis, I cannot help wondering what this decade of 2000s could have been like if we would have had another similarly brilliant rivalry between the Bryan brothers and the Indian Express simmering along simultaneously!

When I watch them play together now, it feels like I am ruining the lost opportunities just as much as I am celebrating the new ones. It feels like I am despairing over the past just as much as I am anxiously waiting for the future. They may or may not eventually win this Australian Open (though I really wish that they do for it will complete the Career Grand Slam in Men's Doubles tennis for both of them)... but one thing's for sure, they will always be remembered fondly in India for bringing a non-cricket sport to the front page of newspapers and achieving feats that no other Indian ever has!

No comments: