Sania Mirza and Leander Paes after the end of the practice session in London. (HT photo)
Leander Paes has been playing that side for over a decade, having crafted a career as India's most successful doubles player. The rumour mill had conspiracy theories floating that Mirza may yet want to pair with Mahesh Bhupathi.
All in all, it made for an explosive setting at Wimbledon on Wednesday where the warring players of Indian tennis were set to come together for the first time since their bitter public feud.
Mirza walked in by 11.45am local time, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna were already courtside, getting ready for their practice but no one knew where Paes was. Captain SP Misra too walked around scratching his head, not too sure if his number one player was going to show up. Scheduled to be on court by 1pm, Paes finally burst upon the scene with just five minutes to go.
Paes went through his warm-up routine and hit the grass within 10 minutes but he just did not look like the player this correspondent had seen four months ago in the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan. This new avatar was leaner, fitter and, if eyes are the window to a soul, definitely meaner.
Paes, at 39, has some of that feline look back again. The gut looks tighter and there's a new spring to his body language.
He walked on court and, without a second glance, took his stance on the backhand side as he waved Mirza towards her favourite forehand side.
Sania's mother Naseema smiled, sitting at the sidelines: "Just watch. They'll be the best of friends in no time. It's always the same. Both have their egos but once on court together, they get along like crazy."
She was prophetic. The serious practice session was soon punctuated with jokes. Pitted against their respective men's and women's doubles partners — Vishnu Vardhan and Rushmi Chakravarthy - the stars quickly ganged up and raised the stakes to a dinner from the losing pair. "Back home, yahan pound bahut mehnga hai (here the pound is too expensive)!" complained Vardhan to guffaws.
At the changeover, the poor fellow was ragged about his considerable height (6'2''), with Paes lamenting that he is still only about 5'10" on a good day. Quick to Vardhan's rescue was Sania: "That too on account of your thick insoles!" Paes was quick to retort: "You stay out of this shorty!" By then, Misra too was smiling away in his corner.
After days of speculation and acrimony, all was well in this particular corner of Indian tennis. "A week of practice is more than enough for us to gel. After all, we are professional tennis players and we don't ever have the luxury of playing together for months before pairing up," said Mirza dismissing the notion that the two may not get their games in synch before the Olympics.
Mirza has her right knee strapped as she carries a niggle from Wimbledon. “We are never really perfect in body, that's the nature of our sport. You learn to play with the pain.” She refused to even entertain the query as to whether there is any possibility of her asking to be paired with Bhupathi before the mixed doubles sign-in. “Look, I have never said that. There has been no discussion on that account. Leander is our number one player and it's an honour to play with him."