Now or never for Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi

August 6th, 2008 - 3:28 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Aug 6 (IANS) Not many may remember that Leander Paes came close to winning a bronze in doubles in his 1992 debut Olympic Games in Barcelona before he won a singles bronze at the next Games in Atlanta. Leander will be playing in his fifth Olympics and in the three Games after Barcelona he partnered Mahesh Bhupathi. The two dominated the world doubles play together as well as with different partners, but surprisingly they could never win an Olympic medal.

The closest the two came to a medal was when they lost in the semi-finals and finished fourth losing to another Croatian pair Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic in the bronze play-off at the Athens Games four years ago.

In Barcelona, Leander paired with Ramesh Krishnan and they surprised highly rated Australian duo John Fitzgerald and Todd Woodbridge over four sets and in the quarter-finals they lost to Croatian pair big-serving Goran Ivanisevic and Goran Prpic in four closely-fought sets. Four years later in Sydney, they had to bow before the might of the Australian “Woodies,” Mark Woodforde and Woodbridge in the second round and at Athens they lost to Germans Nicolas Keifer and Rainer Schuttler in the semis.

The question uppermost in the minds of the tennis buffs when a truce was brokered between the two was, would they be able to win a medal this time around? By the sheer weight of their cumulative strength as doubles players they should, but not if they are not at their physical best and tough mentally. Not many are willing to put their money on the duo simply because of their propensity to press the self-destruct button at the slightest provocation.

The two have been on the warpath and have not played together after an unseemly spat at the Doha 2006 Asian Games. It took quite some persuasion and coercion to make them agree to play in Beijing. After much haggling and war of plants and leaks, they played in two tournaments on the circuit in the run-up to Beijing, entering the final of one of them. While Paes insists they will have little problem with their chemistry because the two are matured professionals, Mahesh doesn’t agree with the assessment.

And just when Paes seems to be peaking in time for the Games, Bhupathi has been facing fitness problems. While Leander has made the semi-finals of his last three Tour events, pairing up with Czech Lukas Dlouhy, Bhupathi is struggling with his fitness and form ever since he pulled out of the Wimbledon mixed doubles semi-final because of calf injury.

In fact, Bhupathi and his Bahamas partner Mark Knowles had a rousing start to the season, winning titles at Memphis and Dubai, but thereafter the duo went spiralling down, making shock early exits from Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

Around this time there was another round of sparring between Paes and Bhupathi before All India Tennis Association (AITA) secretary-general Anil Khanna brought them to a meeting ground in Paris during the French Open and persuaded them to go to Beijing. The duo, with their rich experience has the potential to turn the tide any moment and they remain India’s strongest medal prospects in Beijing, notwithstanding their personal problems.

Meanwhile, Sania Mirza will be attracting quite some attention, going to her maiden Olympics after receiving direct entry on the basis of her WTA ranking. The Hyderabadi shot into fame after winning Wimbledon Girl’s doubles title in 2003 and then finished runner-up in Asian Tennis Championships in 2004. In 2005, she reached the fourth round of US Open, becoming first Indian woman to record such a feat at a Grand Slam.

She became the first Indian woman to win a WTA singles title when she defeated Alyona Bondarenko of Ukraine in the Hyderabad Open Finals in Feb 2005.So far the 35th ranked Indian has beaten three top 10 players — Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova and former Swiss No.1 Martina Hingis.

But India’s top women tennis player is finding it tough to cope with rigours of professional tennis after surgery on her right wrist. Though her return to the circuit in June had been earlier than expected, she still feels she has the residual pain in her wrist and it is taking longer than she had expected it to mend. Her discomfort could be seen in her forehand as it clearly lacks punch.

Sania has made early exits in as many as six tournaments since her comeback and a packed field with top ranked players in Beijing won’t make things any easier for her.

She will be pairing up with India’s No.2 player Sunitha Rao in doubles, but the pair has played just once together, in the Fed Cup in Malaysia early this year. Unlike Paes and Bhupathi, the two haven’t played together in the run-up to the Olympics.

Yet, it won’t be fair to count Sania out as she is known for her grit and determination and the Beijing hard courts should suit her game just fine.

And if nothing, she can at least be sure of a large fan following in Beijing. As per a poll conducted by the Chinese news agency Xinhua in 2006, Sania is among the top 10 all-time tennis beauties, headed by Gabriela Sabatini, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Chris Evert among others.

Medal, or no medal, fortunes of India tennis players will keenly be followed in Beijing.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posted in Sports |