There was something about him that made one believe that this boy, barely in his teens, would one day become a world-beater. There was a spark in his eyes and an athletic energy not seen in Indian sportsmen. His cat-like reflexes made his net-play exceptional and his volcanic energy made him cover the court like a tiger sprinting to catch his prey. More than two decades have passed but the memory of Leander Paes' final win in a junior championship in Chandigarh keeps surfacing each time he is on the threshold of one more landmark.
It has been a long, winding career marked by many dramatic twists and turns, none more intriguing than his love-hate relationship with Mahesh Bhupathi. Unlike the boundless vigour of Paes, Bhupathi's measured movements give the impression that he has strayed by mistake on to a tennis court. Taller, more elegant and a better server, Bhupathi's fate got linked with Paes the day the two decided to partner each other in the doubles.
It was a partnership of mutual profit. Paes would take advantage of Bhupathi's baseline control with breathtaking vigilance at the net. It made them the best doubles team in the world, making them stop playing singles, a much more demanding and skilful vocation.
Why they fell apart is still a mystery. Ego, money disputes or women, the stories abound. In this tale of two friends losing each other while climbing the ladder of fame and riches, the truth will always have many versions. What, from a sporting perspective, is remarkable is that even in separation they could not de-link themselves from each other. Tennis had intertwined their fate and their identity as Indians has forced them to acknowledge each others' existence with greater patience than they may have wished.
Their face-off in a Grand Slam final, that too at an age when most athletes nurse their worn out bodies, gives this story a climax reserved for fictional accounts.
It is an Indian story of two tennis players, who would have been basking in the glory of a couple of exceptional performances, but would have remained average international players had they chosen to stay in the singles circuit.
They changed the course of their destiny by choosing doubles as the means of their professional survival and their success has given us Indians something to feel happy and even proud about.
That they have reached thus far and stayed focussed for so long enhances the romance of this story of trust and betrayal and, more importantly, of tremendous sporting achievements.