Will 13th year of troubled Paes-Bhupathi pairing prove lucky

August 9th, 2008 - 5:33 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Venus Williams
By V Krishnaswamy
Beijing, Aug 9 (IANS) It is the 13th year in a long partnership that has seen the best and worst of team spirit. The chest bumps of the past have changed to acerbic exchanges through third parties. Once the epitome of on-and-off court understanding, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi now come together rarely. And the Beijing Olympics may well be the last such appearance. Most their of recent appearances together have been preceded by bitter exchanges which call for ‘brokering of peace’ after unsavoury comments attributed to either side. Certainly not the best thing for two sportsmen, whose feats on the court are near legendary.

Paes has five Olympic appearances, a bronze medal and seven Grand Slam doubles titles. Bhupathi has four Olympic appearances and 10 Grand Slam doubles titles.

If Paes has an Olympic medal, Bhupathi was the first Indian to win a Slam back in 1997.

Nine years ago, they together won their first Wimbledon doubles and the same year they reached all four Grand Slam finals. They won three Slams together. But for a better part of last ten years, they have barely seen eye to eye.

On paper it might seem that they have come together for the sake of Indian tennis or maybe because some other parties have convinced them to do so.

But in the heart of hearts they know that this may be their last chance to win an Olympic medal together.

They know how the other reacts; they how the other hurts; they know what the other will do when the ball comes onto their side of the court. Maybe they don’t need to talk to each other. Yet, they need each other to write what may probably be the last chapter in their historic contribution to Indian tennis, maybe even Indian sport.

From 1995, when they paired together for the first, they have come to Olympic four times and four years ago, as Paes says, “I almost wept as I saw the medal, which was to be ours, slip away.” They lost in heart-breaking play-off for the bronze.

In the past, Paes has twice come close to winning a medal at doubles but faltered. In 1992, playing with Ramesh Krishnan, Paes lost in the quarters to Goran Ivanisevic and Goran Prpic of Croatia.

Then in 2004 it was even closer in a play-off. Paes and Bhupathi went down fighting 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 14-16 in a marathon match that lasted over four hours and the last set alone took two and a half hours.

They have come together once more to make their last appearance together a happy one.

Personal differences apart, standing in their way are some of the best players in the world. The Bryan twins, Bob and Mike, have been No. 1 for the last three years and have five Grand Slams together and this left-right combination (Bob is the southpaw) indulge in chest-bumping, which was once the trademark of Paes and Bhupathi.

There is also the defending doubles pairing of Chileans Nicolas Massu, who won both singles and doubles, and Fernando Gonzalez, who also won the singles bronze.

The other leading pairs in the fray will be Athens silver medallists, Nicolas Keifer and Rainier Schuettler of Germany and Serbs, Novak Djokovic and Nenad Zimonjic and last year’s Wimbledon champions, Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra of France.

With men’s doubles being such a small world, and Paes and Bhupathi being the senior most, they have seen, played with or against almost all others in the field.

But the biggest question will be whether they can keep their personal animosity towards each other aside and bring home for India a tennis medal, which would have been theirs for the taking all these years. If only they had stayed together as friends and doubles partners.

Alas life is never so straight and simple. The twists sometimes make it interesting and in this case heart-wrenching.

Paes, who took the bronze medal back in 1996, said, “It feels just great to think that I’m here to compete in my fifth Olympic Games. It’s incredible. Surely winning a medal would make it even more memorable for me.”

Paes claims he is peaking at the right time. “I’m peaking at the right time as well. I did not have a great start to the season but things gradually started falling in place and last five weeks have been really satisfying, something obvious from my rankings,” said Paes here.

Paes and Bhupathi, seeded seventh largely on account of their individual ranking in doubles, play the French pair of Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon. The French pairing may not be well-known but Monfils is a name to watch out for in the future, as he reached the semis at Roland Garros this year.

Paes admitted, “At this level, you have to take every match seriously. You just cannot afford to lower the guard. Every day would be tough battle,” he said.

If the first hurdle is crossed, they could run into the Czech pair of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek, the latter having paired with both Indians in the past.

Paes cannot stop talking about Athens. Two days ago, he again recalled it. “The defeat in Athens still hurts. It rankles me to think that we lost the match when we were just two match points away from the medal. I want to right the wrong here,” said Paes.

Tennis has been marked out as one of the disciplines where India has a medal chance. Tennis begins on Sunday, but the Indians take court only on Monday and soon we will know whether there is a medal to be had or once again a disappointment.

In the women’s singles, Sania Mirza fighting with her form and a sliding ranking, meets a higher ranked Iveta Benesova who has beaten the Indian on all three previous occasions. If Sania does manage to reverse the earlier results, she could run into Wimbledon champion and seventh seed Venus Williams in the second round.

Sania also figures in the women’s doubles with Sunitha Rao.

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