“He must wake up and smell his morning coffee.”
That was the response from Mahesh Bhupathi to remarks by the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan who said, in the lead up to the 2004 Athens Games, that the ‘Indian Express’ should have paired in more events to stand a good chance of winning an Olympic medal.
Four years later, as the duo gets ready to make up for the agonising loss in the bronze medal match in Athens, the scenario does not seem to have changed much.
Bhupathi and Leander Paes reached the final of the grass court event in the Netherlands this year. But that was before Wimbledon. The surface in Beijing would be hard. In the tournament they played on a hard court, at Indianapolis last month, they lost in the first round. Effectively, they go in to the Olympics with very little match play.
“It is a bit too late to get into the nitty gritty now. One can only hope that Leander and Mahesh get there without any injury problems. Their vast experience is surely a big plus point. If they get seeded, that will also be a help,” said Ramanathan’s son and former India captain, Ramesh Krishnan.
Enrico Piperno, former India player and Bhupathi’s former coach, agreed the duo “were a little under-prepared”. “They needed to play at least four-five weeks. A one-off event is not going to be beneficial. This is not a Davis Cup tie where you play one (doubles) match,” said Piperno.
Jaideep Mukherjee, former Davis Cup player and captain who coached the Indians at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 when Paes won the singles bronze, gave a “50-50 medal chance” to the pair. “I think they had their best chance in Athens. This year it’s going to be tough,” said Mukherjee.
“They need a good draw. If they could reach the quarterfinals, from there on anything is possible,” he said. Paes and Bhupathi will prepare by having a camp this week in the US before joining the Indian contingent in Beijing for the opening ceremony.
“They are older now, if anything. With age comes slower reflex, a key factor in doubles. But they are playing well on the international tour, they know each other,” said Mukherjee.
But age shouldn’t be a factor, if one goes by the world rankings. The top players, except perhaps the Bryan brothers of the US, are well above 30.
“The good thing is they are playing well individually. I know for sure that Mahesh is really hungry for a medal. I hope it doesn’t affect him,” said Piperno.
Sania Mirza and Sunitha Rao, a wild card entry, will lead the women’s challenge. It is the first Olympics for the 20-year-old Sania and it remains to be seen how prepared she is.
The Hyderabadi underwent a wrist surgery in April and was out of action for nearly three months. She has not set the US hard courts, her favourite hunting ground, on fire and consequently her ranking has slipped to 50 on the WTA Tour.
Sania played in a Tier 4 event at Stockholm last week, whereas the big guns were battling it out in the Tier 1 Rogers Cup in Montreal.
Her father, Imran Mirza, explained Sania had not entered the Canada event since she was not sure how her wrists would play. But after realising they were better, Sania used the Silver Exempt to get a wild card in Stockholm, something Tour rules did not permit her in Tier 1 events.
Mukherjee said he would be “pleasantly surprised” if Sania went on to win a medal. But it is well known that Sania, with an accurately firing forehand, can cause a lot of damage. It is equally known that she enjoys playing on the big stage.
The absence of big stars like Justine Henin (retired) and Maria Sharapova (injury) could work in her favour. “Sania is quite capable and hope she gets a lucky break," Piperno, the Fed Cup captain, said.
"I don't think Ana Ivanovic is the real no. 1. There is a lot up for grabs. A favourable draw could really open up things," he said.