As the New Year begins, Kamesh Srinivasan surveys the past and future of Indian tennis
The beginning of 2014 signified the end of an era in Indian tennis. Yes, Mahesh Bhupathi did not make the draw in Chennai Open ATP Tour event. In a quirk of fate, Leander Paes, seeded second with Andreas Fognini, found the Italian pulling out with an injury, forcing him to pack his bags without playing a match.
It was too late to do anything, and it was quite symbolic that the slot in the draw went vacant as the organisers failed to find an alternate pair to fill the void!
With all respect to Rohan Bopanna, the strapping man from Coorg who bloomed late, Indian tennis may never find a replacement for Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, as a pair. It was at the Chennai Open that it all began in 1997, when Paes and Bhupathi won their maiden ATP Tour title, after having set the Challenger circuit on fire around the world.
Even before that, when an ATP Tour event was first held in Delhi in 1996, the former world No.1 doubles star, Anders Jarryd of Sweden, had predicted a brilliant future for the Indian pair after handing out a 6-1, 6-2 first round defeat in partnership with the Olympic gold medallist Jakob Hlasek of Switzerland. Jarryd’s warning then, not to read too much into that defeat or be hard on the Indian pair, has proven right.
Paes has won 53 doubles titles on the men’s circuit, including eight Grand Slam crowns while Bhupathi has won 52, with four Grand Slam titles. The duo won 26 titles together on the big stage, including three Grand Slams. Quite notably, Bhupathi won only one more men’s doubles Grand slam title at the US Open in 2002 with Max Mirnyi, while Paes moved on to win five more Grand Slam men’s doubles titles, with the last coming at the recent US Open.
Remarkably, in a span of 17 seasons in the tough grind of professional tennis, both Paes and Bhupathi have won at least one doubles title each every year since 1997, despite facing some rough health situations. Both have, individually and collectively been ranked No.1 in the world of doubles that has helped them collect a major share of their $14 million prize money.
Of course, it was Bhupathi who started the healthy habit of winning a Grand Slam title in 1997 when he clinched the French Open mixed doubles title with the diminutive Rika Hiraki of Japan. Bhupathi has won all the four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles twice, including two with Sania Mirza. In comparison, Paes has six mixed doubles titles, and is still looking for his first title at the French Open, even though he has a Career Grand Slam in men’s doubles.
Quite a positive personality, Paes at 40, was unwilling to be jolted by the bad start to the season. “Tough start for this week. Will work hard to make some magic in Melbourne,” was how he opted to respond to the situation. Yes, he had won the Australian Open as recently as 2012 with Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic.
He may be looking at a career target of a seventh Olympics in Rio as a distinct possibility, but Paes takes it one week at a time. He was close to winning his second Olympic medal, after the singles bronze in Atlanta in 1996, when he went down with guns blazing in Athens in 2004, with Bhupathi in the bronze play-off. He looked good for a medal in London in 2012 with Sania Mirza before the duo lost a tough match to the eventual gold medallists Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the quarterfinals.
Indian tennis had a problem of plenty as three fought to make the best men’s doubles pair for the London Games. They may not have projected the right picture to the young enthusiasts with their public quarrel, but make no mistake, it will be a long time before we have three Indians in the top-10 of doubles.
Bopanna had broken from a successful partnership with Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan while Bhupathi himself split with Paes for the umpteenth time to forge a strong partnership together for the London Games. The aspirations of Indian tennis for another Olympic medal remained a dream, but Bopanna and Bhupathi peaked a little later to make the World Tour Masters final in London to sign off that season of bitterness on a bright note.
Bopanna, who reached a career-best No.3 in July last year, has rejoined the cheerful Pakistani and the duo is looking for that elusive Grand Slam title. The 33-year-old Bopanna has nine Tour doubles titles and four of them have been with Qureshi. In a draw, that did not feature either Paes or Bhupathi for only the third time in 19 years, Bopanna was seeded No.1 with Qureshi in Chennai. The Indo-Pak duo, which charmed everyone with their public demonstration of cooking skills, kicked off the campaign with a thrilling victory over the champions of the last edition, Benoit Paire of France and the Olympic gold medallist Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland.
“I am very happy to be teaming up with Aisam again. I look forward to a lot more success with him,” said Bopanna, quite confident that despite a dip in ranking, the duo will be able to get seeded in all the tournaments and have the opportunity to pace their progress.
Bhupathi had planned to retire last year, but opted to mix it up a bit with his business and has given himself time till Wimbledon to call it quits. Having been associated with Olympic champion Andy Murray of Britain, and the Asian Tennis League that he has planned, Bhupathi will be around the tennis events in any case, for some more time.
“Having a two-year-old has changed my priorities. It is hard in terms of being away from home extensively,” said Bhupathi, as he put his daughter Saira at the centre of his world. Paes has got over that stage even though he too is a doting dad to his daughter Aiyana.
Even as Paes mulls his future in the Indian Davis Cup team, the exciting question is whether we will see Bopanna and Paes as a pair at the next Davis Cup tie against Chinese Taipei in Indore at the end of this month.
A clutch of youngsters headed by Yuki Bhambri may force the selectors to stick to one doubles specialist in the four-member team, but Paes and Bopanna will continue to make us proud, as they train their sights on the Grand Slams.
Every end is nothing, but a new beginning!