It’s a hate-on-sight relationship. Two men who can’t stand the sight of each other spent more than two hours on Sunday night glaring across a 78-feet long rectangle that defines their lives. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi do not say ‘hello’. Each would rather wait for the next elevator instead of sharing one. Destiny, however, deigns they share the court and the mind space of a nation of a billion as its two tennis titans.
It’s a hate-on-sight relationship. Two men who can’t stand the sight of each other spent more than two hours on Sunday night glaring across a 78-feet long rectangle that defines their lives. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi do not say ‘hello’. Each would rather wait for the next elevator instead of sharing one.
“Long ago, I have made peace with the fact that Mahesh (Bhupathi) is part of my karma, just like I am part of his. Whether we like it or not, we’ll be in each other’s face forever. Whenever we face each other, there is usually one defining moment in the match where our wills clash. I have realised that it is that crucible on which our contests hinge,” a tired sounding Leander Paes told HT on Monday after his tenth Grand Slam title.
That moment came at 2-2 in the second set when Paes-Lukas Dlouhy broke Bhupathi to surge ahead 3-2. During the game, Paes chipped a return for winner and screamed: “This is my court.”
“That cry came from deep down. It’s not pre-meditated. It’s basic; it’s instinctive and more animal than anything else. I hardly remember what I say out there at those moments. It stems from the realisation that the match is hanging in the balance,” he tried explaining. “Momentum is this elusive X-factor. Till then they had it. But from that point onward, I could feel it well up and crest into a wave, which swept us all the way. From there on, we started taking control even if they immediately broke back to level.”
Gain through pain
Paes’ triumph came through waves of searing pain. “Every time I tried to accelerate my arm through to get pace in my stroke, it hurt. Playing through pain is something that all professional athletes learn to do, but I fear I have really hurt my arm now.”
While he is glad he has ten now, Paes doesn’t sound too excited about numbers.
“Records like this reflect the longevity of an athlete at peak performance but honestly after the first five, they have just become numbers. Only the first one stays really special. This year I again won two Slams, after a decade. Not bad for a 36-year-old,” he laughs.
Against Hesh, it matters
“For me, the past no longer matters, even if it irks every now and then. But then a Lea-Hesh clash will always have fireworks. This match was so intense. It was such a see-saw. There is always an undercurrent to these contests because of our past. One never wants to lose any match but when it’s between us, it just does seem to become that much more intense.”
Bhupathi was the pivot on which the match hinged for Paes-Dlouhy. “We knew Knowles was also carrying a sore shoulder. It was Mahesh we had to counter. Once he was broken at 2-2 in the second, we knew we had a foot in. Breaking through his armour was the key.”
Two Grand Slam titles in a year at 36 do make a man special.
“It takes a lot of physical effort and mental discipline. Now, the muscles hurt that much more, the body has to be nursed and cajoled. It’s hard but I still love the high of snapping away a volley for a winner and the rush of winning. Doing it with an arm that’s on fire (with pain) makes it all the more incredible. Doesn’t it?”