Every time Mahesh Bhupathi sent a stinging forehand past Xavier Malisse and Ken Skupski on Wednesday, he pumped his fist, yelled a ‘Come on!’, looked at his partner, finally looked at his box — with his trainer, Shyamal Vallabhjee, encouraging him back.
The reaction seemed somewhat overstated from an 11-time Grand Slam champion. After all, it was a first round of the Chennai Open, against a makeshift team, in front of a sparse late-night crowd. But given that him and Rohan Bopanna were fighting back from a one-set deficit and the doubts over his repositioning to the deuce court, the 37-year-old played like he had a point to prove.
The duo has won the first two rounds, and made it to the semifinal. More importantly, while far from flawless, Bhupathi has taken the challenge of playing from the deuce court head-on. Experts are divided over his decision to switch sides, but they believe his experience will carry him through the initial bumps.
“Personally, I would have liked to see Rohan play the deuce court,” said Vijay Amritraj. "Firstly, because Mahesh's backhand return is one of the best in the game. Secondly, Rohan has a blistering forehand; he is a big hitter and could have done well from both flanks.
“More importantly, when it comes to poaching, Mahesh is used to crossing from the ad side. Now the angles will be completely different. But I think he's prepared for it; having played for so long, there's an element of staleness that seeps in. I think he's looking at this as a fresh challenge.”
India's non-playing Davis Cup captain, SP Mishra, believes it was a “tough decision” to make. “The Davis Cup matches that Mahesh and Rohan played together, Rohan always played the deuce court. I think Mahesh believes technically he’s more equipped to make the switch."
Just how well the team has settled into its new dimension will meet its first real challenge, when they take on Israeli doubles specialists Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram on Saturday.
"It was weird. I spoke with Hesh and he said after 21 years he returned from that side," said Erlich. “Maybe, it will be a little easier for Hesh because he's one of the biggest returners. Most difficult will probably be the second and the third shot, especially under pressure, that's where it will count. I think he will manage, if he has good support from his partner," was Erlich's assessment. But having played from both sides himself, the Israeli rival will know the chinks in Bhupathi's armour.How well the Indian conceals them might be the key for him to make it through to the title round.