Here's a twist that even Chubby Checkers would admire, though it's one in the narrative and not the hips. The ATP Kingfisher Open has panned out in such a way that come Saturday, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi will play their first ever ATP Tour doubles match against each other on Indian soil.
Overall, it'll be their 13th clash in the paired event against each other. Their head-to-head record stands at 6-6.
The contest at the Cricket Club of India pits Paes and Pakistan's Aisam Qureshi against the second seeded Bhupathi and Mario Ancic of Croatia.
The match was to be played on Friday, but the team that has already reached the semifinal from their half — Denis Gremelmayr and Simon Greul of Germany — has pulled out. In short, the winners of the Paes-Qureshi vs Bhupathi-Ancic duel will reach the final.
Nonetheless, a change of date doesn't make the match less interesting. “It's going to be high-quality doubles,” Bhupathi, 32, told HT on Thursday. “I'm looking forward to it,” the 33-year-old Paes after his team's first-round win over Ramon Delgado and Konstantinos Economidis on Wednesday.
Apart from being a statistical milestone, the match possesses a halo around it, given the long, interesting history that Paes and Bhupathi share. The two started as partners and friends, then fell off with each other and now are back on somewhat cordial terms.
The Kingfisher Open is owned by Globosport, Bhupathi's company. It's being played in Mumbai, which Paes has made his hometown the last few years. In sum, there are several reasons why each of them would want to win.
Asked what his feelings were about playing Paes, Bhupathi said, “For us it's not new. We play each other three or four times a year on tour. But it's not happened in India before so it's good for the fans.”
There is excitement at the venue too. On Thursday evening, there was at least a semblance of a queue at the ticket counter. Within the premises, the match is among the most discussed subjects.
Unlike a majority of the doubles matches that feature lesser-known players, Friday's fixture boasts four names not only recognised but also admired. While Paes and Bhupathi have been the cornerstones of Indian tennis for over a decade, their partners, despite being foreigners, are dear to the crowd.
Qureshi, through regular travels to India for Satellite and Challenger tournaments and a Davis Cup tie, is a friendly, familiar face. Ancic has not been to India before, but his reputation and intense personality have made him a hit with the galleries.
Where strategy is concerned, Bhupathi said his team's strength was returns. “Leander and Aisam are good serve-and-volleyers,” he said. “We'll concentrate on returning well.”
Paes said he and Qureshi needed to work on their returns. “We've just played one round together,” he said. “But we are improving with every match.”
Finally, who will win? The money is on Bhupathi-Ancic. Even Paes believes so. “They have just won a title (the China Open) and on current form they are the favourites,” he said.
Bhupathi said, “China and Mumbai are two different tournaments but the Beijing victory has given us the confidence that we can win big matches.”