SPORT

Paes, Bhupathi lose a marathon

WE DID IT! Croatia's Mario Ancic gives vent to his emotions after he and Ivan Ljubicic overcame Indians Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes to win the bronze.  

ATHENS, AUG. 21. It was an epic, nevertheless disappointing, contest for Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. The crack Indian combination failed to capitalise on the numerous opportunities to win the doubles bronze, and was pipped at the post 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 14-16 in three hours and 58 minutes in a nerve-wracking contest that began on Friday night and ended in thw wee hours of Saturday.

Destiny seemed to have the last laugh, even as the wild card Croatian pair of Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic celebrated the well-earned victory by singing with a group of loyal fans, throwing their shirts and racquets to them in appreciation for their strong support.

"After a point it is not about serves and volleys, it is God up there who decides,'' said Leander, unable to hide his emotions.

Leander and Mahesh failed to convert three breakpoints on Ancic's serve at 0-40 in the 29th game and that proved costly. Leander dropped serve in the next game as the 20-year-old Ancic, a Wimbledon singles semifinalist this year, came up with a sharp shot on the fourth matchpoint that brooked little resistance from Leander.

In fact, it was the Indian pair that had converted two breakpoints, one on Ancic's serve in the second game of the first set, and another in the seventh game of the second set, which failed to encash seven of the eight breakpoint chances in the third set.

Come to think of it, the Indian pair won only one of those three breaks, with Mahesh hitting a winner in the second set, as the Croats had delivered doublefaults on breakpoint in surrendering the other two breaks.

It looked quite promising for the Indian fans when Ljubicic's serve was broken in the third game of the decider, but Mahesh dropped serve in the next game as he himself mishit two volleys apart from delivering a doublefault.

It was to the great credit of the Indian pair that it fought hard, and saved three matchpoints, two on Mahesh's serve at 15-40 in the 16th game, and one more on Leander's serve in the 26th game.

The Croats were serving exceptionally well throughout the match, and it was no surprise that Ancic was able to save a breakpoint in the 17th game, two in the 21st and three more in that 29th.

Big serves

Ljubicic came up with big serves even after having been broken in the crucial third game of the decider, and that was the key to Croatia's success.

He dropped only five points in his six service games after the break. The Croatian pair dropped only 23 points in its last 13 service games, and that was as good as anybody in the world could have played under the situation.

The Indian fight was equally spectacular. Leander and Mahesh themselves dropped only 22 points in their last 13 service games, but dropped one too many in that last game. Both the teams won 164 points each.

"We have played many memorable matches in Davis Cup, Wimbledon. We have never fought like this,'' said Mahesh.

Of course, the Australian Open final in 1999 readily comes to mind, when Leander and Mahesh fought for more than four hours while losing in five sets to Patrick Rafter of Australia and Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden.