Leander Paes is 37. Mahesh Bhupathi a year younger. They play together twice, maximum thrice a year. Despite playing the same circuit they rarely practice together. But when talks of winning medals for India in multi-sport extravaganzas emerge, the Paes-Bhupathi combine is almost always the first on the list.
It always hasn’t proved prophetic; an Olympic medal has eluded India’s A-doubles team. Only just. However, when tennis makes a debut at the 2010 Commonwelath Games in Delhi, the duo will start runaway favourites.
Paes insists they are not joined at the hip, but two separate people with their own individual careers. We understand. But what we can’t quite grasp is the magic they inevitably create when they play together. After years of playing and practicing with each other, of affection and hate in the same measure, controversies and ad-hoc patch-ups, Paes and Bhupathi display a connection on court that’s mesmerizing.
Though they haven’t played on the professional tour for a while, the Indian duo has come together regularly for the Davis Cup. And with great effect. They haven’t lost a match together since 1997, stringing together an incredible world record of 22 wins on the trot. In that period, they have also been able to grab two Asian Games gold medals in men’s doubles.
Coming to the Commonwealth Games, Paes and Bhupathi are unlikely to face the quality opponents they play week in and week out. They are the only team who will have both players ranked in the top-10 doubles players in the world. The only two players from the ATP top-10 who may feature at the Games are Daniel Nestor (3) of Canada and Mark Knowles (10) of the Bahamas. Also, there are some good young doubles players in the mix like Jamie Murray of Scotland. Neither of them however, will have a strong enough partner, at least on paper, to hurt the Indians on their home turf.
Also, while most of the other Indian athletes are training for the Games in their respective camps, Paes and Bhupathi will be grinding it out on the Tour. Fine tuning themselves on the court rather than training fields.
They will begin the countdown with the year’s last Grand Slam—the US Open, starting on Monday, where they remain strong contenders. And will combine briefly for the Davis Cup in September when India play Brazil at home in the World Group play-offs, just in case they need to brush off the rust.
Their experience is hard to beat, and having shared so much success together it’s unlikely that they are going to let the opportunity of winning the first-ever Commonwealth gold medal, that too at home, go waste.
So when Paes and Bhupathi say, for them, age is just a number, we believe them and look to the future.