The long stormy marriage of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi
There is the Sachin Tendulkar kind of longevity. Play 22 years, score 100 centuries, win the World Cup and nearly everything else and almost never do anything that’s below your dignity.
Then there is the Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi kind of longevity. Play nearly 20 years, win 50 titles each, but also squabble with each other over 13 years in full public view. The Lee-Hesh conflict has become a biennial event in itself. It should have an opening and closing ceremony of its own.
The 2010 version of the Olympic Charter has a section called ‘Fundamental Principles of Olympism’. Principle No 2 reads: ‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’
Over the years, many have shown a brazen disregard for these lofty ideals. Paes and Bhupathi have now entered the rogues gallery of sportsmanship. As they went at it again over the last few weeks, Baron de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, must have had to perform Baba Ramdev-brand pranayam in his grave at the Cemetery of Bois-de-Vaux, Lausanne.
The Leander-Mahesh conflicts have become an embarrassment to the nation. And frankly, even their well-wishers are fed up.
A member of India’s tennis fraternity, who’s known both, says, “It’s pathetic that they are in the same place that they were 12 or 14 years ago. And it’s pathetic that we still care. Why are we even talking about these guys?”
A tennis parent, like a lot of other tennis parents in India, is angry. His son, like those of several others, has suffered due to the feud between Paes and Bhupathi, and the importance given to them by the All India Tennis Association (AITA). There are factions in Indian tennis and the politics has gotten more complicated. This messes up things for other players. Their fortunes depend on which camp they are with. Selection is a particularly delicate subject, as it has a direct impact on a player’s career. For lesser-known Indian players, who cannot dream of regular appearances on the ATP Tour, let alone the Grand Slams, events like the Davis Cup or Asian Games are crucial. But they get their chances only if Paes, Bhupathi, Somdev Devvarman or Rohan Bopanna are somehow not included in the team.
The players do not and cannot object to the presence of genuine talent in the team. What they find hard to digest are situations like the Davis Cup; where Paes, Bhupathi and Bopanna—all doubles specialists—end up taking up three spots in the team.
“In Davis Cup, only one of the five matches is doubles. And yet you have three doubles players in one team. It’s ridiculous,” a parent of a tennis professional says, “The importance Paes and Bhupathi get affects the development of the younger generation.”
Even the selection of Vishnu Vardhan as Paes’ partner for London raised some questions. There are two players ranked above him in the world doubles standings—Divij Sharan and Purav Raja. Vishnu is a big guy with a powerful game suited for grass and that was a factor in his selection, since the Olympic tennis competition will be played on the grass courts of Wimbledon. But Divij, a higher-ranked player, too, could have been an asset at Wimbledon. Over the years, several young players—Harsh Mankad, Sunil Kumar, Karan Rastogi, among others—have been hampered by a lack of clarity about their future. They did get breaks, and it could be argued that they were not as good as Paes or Bhupathi. But they did not get chances in a planned, sustained manner. Even when they did well in one contest, they were at times inexplicably dropped for the next.
“Bahut gandagi hain, kya kya likhoge?” a tennis parent asks. (There is a lot of dirt, what all will you write?) He says this at the end of a 32-minute phone conversation, during which he has vented his frustration over Paes, Bhupathi, the press and the AITA.
The AITA is a typical Indian sports federation—mediocre yet arrogant, and headed by power fiends with suspiciously long tenures. The Khanna family—first RK Khanna and now his son Anil, both chartered accountants—have been ruling Indian tennis for a better part of the last five decades. RK Khanna was the AITA secretary general from 1966 to 1975, then 1988 to 1992. From 1992 to 2000, he was the federation’s president. The tennis stadium in Delhi, where the AITA office is located, is named after RK Khanna (instead of, say, Ramanathan Krishnan, India’s best singles player ever). Anil Khanna was secretary general for 12 years and a few days ago was unanimously elected the AITA president. Rahul Mehra, the sometimes loud but well-meaning lawyer out to right some of our useless sports administrators, is planning to file a PIL against Khanna for flouting the National Sports Development Bill issued by the Government. The Bill stipulates the number of years an official can continue in office, and Khanna has exceeded these without serving a mandatory cooling-off period between terms.
But Anil Khanna is not going away. And one fundamental question, too, is not going away. It is what people ask each time Paes and Bhupathi fight: what happened that two boys who started out as friends later preferred separation over the prospect of winning more Grand Slam trophies and hundreds of thousands of dollars?
There are a lot of theories, of course. Enrico Piperno, who was Mahesh’s coach at the time, said in an interview to Rediff.com in 2001, “There are too many stories. If I were to go into them, then it would take a lifetime.” One of the reasons mentioned was Piperno himself. A clever, fast-talking character, who would have done well in marketing, Piperno once mentored the young Paes. But they fell out. By the time Piperno became Bhupathi’s coach, Paes blamed him for creating a rift between Bhupathi and him. But Piperno said at the time, “The truth is that I wasn’t to blame. They used me. The media and the boys, to some extent; Leander and his father did use me to some extent. But I was not to blame.”
There are more colourful theories behind the Paes-Bhupathi split but an important reason was tennis and tennis alone. To fully understand why this is the case, we must go back to the early 1990s.
The year 1990 was when Leander Paes came to national prominence. He won the junior singles at Wimbledon, which carries more significance than, say, a senior mixed doubles title. He also made a swaggering Davis Cup debut. He was the kind of livewire Indian sport didn’t have, if you don’t count Dhanraj Pillay. And Paes had self-belief, even faced with the world’s best tennis players. That, too, was uncommon for an Indian athlete of that time.
Paes was the same age as Tendulkar and their emergence was a new dawn for Indian sport. While Paes did not live up to his promise on the singles circuit, he performed above his calibre in Davis Cup ties, scoring astounding wins in India and abroad, on clay and grass. Besides, he was a flashy player. So even if he did not win a lot on the ATP Tour, people liked to see him play. As a result, within four years of making his debut for India, Paes was the most important man in Indian tennis. This is something Yuki Bhambri did not quite factor in, the other day, while responding to Paes’ reluctance to partner a junior player. Bhambri said that if Ramesh Krishnan, then the team’s most senior player, could take a young Paes under his wing in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics,
Leander could also give back to Indian tennis now. But Leander was India’s top prospect then, which Vishnu Vardhan, the option available to Leander now, is not.
But the reign of the young king of Indian tennis was threatened soon. Mahesh Bhupathi, who grew up in the Middle East and went to college in the US, made his presence felt in India in the mid-90s. Bhupathi did not have Paes’ effervescence. But he was tall and had a solid backcourt game and a 400 cc serve, which Paes did not. Nevertheless, Paes was still the superior player. He still is, but there was a period when Bhupathi overshadowed him, and that is where the problems began.
“One thing about Leander is that he likes to be the leader. Maybe that didn’t suit Mahesh,” Paes’ friend says. Leander had to be in the spotlight always. Once during one of their many battles, I told him, “It’s fine. There’s place for two under the sun.” He felt reassured.
In 1996 and 1997, Bhupathi excelled in two big Davis Cup ties, both of which I had covered as a reporter. In that period Bhupathi became nearly as important to Indian tennis as Leander. The first tie was against Holland in Jaipur, the other against Chile in New Delhi. So far, the Davis Cup was Leander’s domain. But in these two ties against strong opposition, Bhupathi, not Paes, was the bigger hero. Against Holland, he won both his singles matches against players ranked much higher (although the second win came when his opponent, Jacco Eltingh, conceded the match in the fourth set after trailing two sets to one). Against Chile, with the tie locked at 2-2, Bhupathi squared off for a nerve-wracking decider against Gabriel Silberstein. The organisers had thrown the gates open for free public entry. Bhupathi lost the first two sets, then turned it around to win in five. The spectators became delirious. There was dancing. It could have been a Ganapati procession.
Also, in 1997, Bhupathi won the French Open mixed doubles title with Japan’s Rika Hiraki. It was only mixed doubles. But it was ‘India’s first Grand Slam’. Everyone thought Leander would be the one to take India to that milestone. But the tortoise overtook the hare.
As the tie against Chile showed, Paes and Bhupathi could fill stadiums. They could get people to whistle and dance. How often does that happen in a non-cricket sport in India? There are some who remain sceptical about doubles, and therefore of Paes and Bhupathi too. But let there be no doubt, Paes and Bhupathi in their prime on a big stage were a thrilling experience, a cocktail of fast-paced sport and raucous excitement. In the best days of the Chennai ATP, when it was called the Gold Flake Open and when Paes and Bhupathi were at the height of their powers, spectators would often be on their feet, dancing ‘Apdi pode’ style. Paes was a panther on the court, capable of impossible shots. Bhupathi, feeding off his partner, feeding off the crowd, would raise his game too. There he would be, getting ready to return the serve from the ad court, jumping on the spot and breathing deep to calm his nerves, and then he would crouch, twirl the racquet in his hands, and when the serve came, drill a backhand winner down the line to secure a break.
Then, they threw it all away.
By 1999, the friendship was over. Their problems became public knowledge one morning when a newspaper put them on its front page. The hot new act in Indian sport was actually a unit in disharmony. Paes had confided to the paper’s reporter that he wasn’t happy with Bhupathi’s attitude to fitness. It was a private conversation. But the reporter had gone ahead and filed the story. There are a couple of interesting things about the way things unfolded. First, their worst year, 1999, was also their best on court. That year they had won Wimbledon and the French Open. Second, a positive aspect of Mahesh’s tennis, his performance, threatened their relationship. And a negative aspect of Mahesh’s tennis—his neglect of fitness—served to hurt it further.
Since then Paes and Bhupathi have had a few tentative patch-ups. On court it hasn’t resulted in much. The glory days of 1997–99 have never come back. Off court it has been love-hate. They put aside their differences for personal occasions; Paes attended both of Bhupathi’s weddings, and in 2003, Bhupathi was with Paes in Orlando when Leander had developed a brain lesion (non-cancerous).But soon, they got back to war. Paes is more prone to flashes of sarcasm. Once, he mocked the press’ tendency to describe Bhupathi as a “strapping” guy. Bhupathi, on the other hand, does not reveal much to strangers, but when the occasion demands, sets the record straight. In 2008, after a similar mutiny against Paes before a Davis Cup tie, he told me in an interview, “I’m tired of the allegations and assumptions. There was Naresh Kumar (former India player, coach and Leander mentor) saying I’m always cooking stuff up. There was Vece Paes (Leander’s father) saying I’m causing trouble. I’m not. And let’s not forget that in 1998, Leander pulled out from one tie (against Italy in Genoa) because he did not want to play under Jaideep Mukherjea (though Paes’ official reason for staying out was injury). At the time I was playing three matches in three days (singles and doubles). Leander did not even tell me that he was opting out.”
While both Paes and Bhupathi have big egos, the latter remains more popular among close followers of Indian tennis. One, he is more approachable. Two, Paes has often robbed other players of playing opportunities. “Leander is always with his coterie. He doesn’t mix. And when players mix with Mahesh, he doesn’t like that either,” says the father of an Indian player. Giving an example of Paes’ autocratic leadership and lack of trust in the abilities of other players, an insider says, “For the Davis Cup tie against Pakistan in Mumbai in 2006, no one wanted to play on a grasscourt because of Aisam Qureshi (Pakistan’s top player who is strong on the surface). But Leander insisted on a grass court because he wanted the tie to be in Mumbai, so that he could be near his pregnant wife. Okay, fine. When the score was 2-2, Leander could have played Rohan Bopanna against Aqeel Khan in the reverse singles. Rohan could have beaten him. But Leander played because he was chasing a record (for most Davis Cup wins). Rohan was pissed off.”
‘Pissed off’ is what the rest of India, too, is right now.