The occasion dates back to a Davis Cup encounter in 1996.
India had blown out Holland, and the architects of the win, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, were wielded to each other like lovers would.
A highly accomplished Indian women’s player, who has partnered the two in mixed doubles, couldn’t resist asking them, “Guys, are you sure you’ll are not married to each other?”
“They were inseparable,” she says in jest, turning back the clock. “It was difficult to believe they were not a couple. They would chalk out their tennis fixtures together and wouldn’t play if the other wasn’t available.”
Sixteen years later, even she struggles to explain their strained on-again, off-again relationship, which has now reached a point of no return. Strong words like betrayal and backstabbing have been thrown about.
Analysed at the surface level, it seems a saga of pricked egos. Enough has been said on what triggered the split. Yet it can’t be loosely rationalised, for when a story involves two terribly talented but complex men, it is bound to have various layers and sub-texts.
The 90s, when these two were at their prime, was also the age of liberalisation. The closed Indian economy had opened up; and sportsmen, like several massive MNCs, were part of a mythical kingdom. Suddenly, they were brands scrutinised to the last shred.
If you strike out Sachin Tendulkar and Viswanathan Anand, India, back then, didn’t quite have a success story in individual sports – a Sushil Kumar or an Abhinav Bindra for instance.
Paes and Bhupathi, informs a confidant, found the abrupt attention slightly overwhelming at times. Their styles were a rage. Bhupathi delivering with heavy ordnance, Paes moving with the swiftness of a floating paper, they were an unusual fit.
The popular consensus was that Paes, whom Andre Agassi likens to a flying jumping bean, was the more athletic and sharper at the net. Bhupathi could smoke aces, had a better return, and was no less in, what they call, jigar. Fans needn’t be reminded how the two created narratives of their own, competing as though every point exacted a price in blood.
Paes, senior to Bhupathi, was at ease with the attention. He could be steadfastly loyal to his people. Apparently, he continued his association with doubles partner, Czech Republic’s David Rikl, who was well past his prime. Debonair and outgoing, he had a penchant for the histrionics too, but who could be complaining?
Bhupathi, in stark contrast, has always been a man of few words and inward drawn. As a veteran journalist says, it was a challenge to elicit 300 words from Bhupathi, whereas Paes would give you enough raw materials for a cover story.
Paes, during this time, had been making a killing in both prize money and endorsements. Statistics reveal that he had logged nearly $3.3 million in prize money and Rs25 lakh when he bagged the bronze in Atlanta. Clearly, he had put Bhupathi in the shade on several counts.
But it’s interesting to hear that while Paes had the spotlight, Bhupathi enjoyed the confidence of their teammates who did have slight reservations on their megalomaniac senior partner.
As is widely known, the first sign of discord surfaced when they had differences over Enrico Piperno, Paes’s trainer during his initial days. There are two versions to this story.
Shailendra Singh, their former manager, says that Piperno, who had a huge influence on Paes, “did not fancy Bhupathi”. A senior player, however, informs that Paes believed Piperno would be more useful in a managerial capacity.
He says, “Paes wanted Bhupathi to opt for a new coach to be competitive in the circuit. Taller players with booming serves had been emerging. But Bhupathi needed Piperno at that stage. He was recovering from a shoulder injury. Also, he had lived in Paes’s shadow long enough and wanted to make his own decisions.”
The tension could have been defused but for their fathers who made needless statements in public. Yet the two tagged along despite the now-growing differences. One could say they had little choice. Despite sponsors queuing up, they still led a hand-to-mouth existence. Adidas had offered them a rewarding contract. If anything, they had to present a make-believe world.
In between, juicy stories were circulated about a woman in their lives. “They travelled together for close to 12 years, so it wasn’t surprising that, at one point, a sweetheart overlapped. But that was never serious enough to create a severe conflict. We forget that both were emotional about playing for India, still they are...,” reveals a source.
When did the split become a chasm? Paes, as they got on in years, remained focussed. A fully consummate professional, he may have had better work ethics. “While Leander constantly looked for what was next, Mahesh seemed to be living every moment to the fullest,” Singh says.
But the differences apparently became more acute following Bhupathi’s association with Globosport, a sports management firm. In some quarters, it was deemed as a needless distraction, feeding on Bhupathi mental energy. And as an illustrious writer recently pointed out, while Paes remained a pro-establishment man, the Indian tennis administration perceived Globosport as a rival body.
“But the players,” claims a senior administrator involved with Indian tennis, “had long distanced themselves from Paes before he could realise it. An impression was advertised that the Davis Cup had become Paes’s fief. He just seemed to have his way when it came to selection. The consequence of which was a players’ revolt in the 2008 Davis Cup.”
“The Olympic episode was the last straw,” he continues.
“Two years back, Paes and Bhupathi had regrouped solely with the Olympics in mind. Winning the 2011 Chennai Open and making it to the Australian Open final a couple of weeks later was proof that they could aspire for another title. Why didn’t it dawn on Paes then that Bhupathi had slowed and Rohan Bopanna would be better bet?” He mentions that Bopanna, too, felt slighted by Paes after being left out of the last Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan, a point the then captain SP Misra refutes.
“We were down 0-2 on the second day itself,” Misra says. “Had it been two-all, I would have certainly played Bopanna. I didn’t want to play him on clay on the first day. It’s not the surface he prefers. I had a talk with Rohan and told him he would be required to play the fifth match if it was two-all on the final day. Don’t forget we were playing Istomin (Denis) who is such a fine player on his own court that I didn’t want to expose Rohan to him.”
As the legends of John McEnroe-Peter Fleming, Stefan Edberg-Anders Jarryd have taught, doubles demand unreserved faith and camaraderie. It’s only just that the once-duopoly of Indian tennis do not find themselves playing in the same patch of soil anymore.