This is a story of two men who no longer like each other. It is a poignant tale of a friendship gone so awry that they hardly acknowledge each other despite destiny entwining their fates in such a tangled mesh. Each time Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi get over the ghosts of their past and come together to create mesmerising tennis, the fantasy of what could have been rears rampant.
Indian tennis is fortunate that their sense of duty overcomes their mutual apathy and as a result India still retain a toe-hold on the possibility of earning a Davis Cup World Group slot after a two-hour-nine-minute regulation 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-1 victory over Marcello Mello and Bruno Soares. The tie against Brazil is now poised at 2-1 in favour of the visitors.
The belligerent 4-0 start to the first set apart, the star combination could hardly relax. Not till the final set, anyway, which they raced away with in just 35 minutes. The fact is that they are no longer the blistering pair of old. Movements are creaky now, strokes just a bit more arthritic. The lunging volley is becoming too much of a gasping stretch and the deep overhead smash a matter of will trying to supplant groaning sinews.
But Saturday’s match was anyway never about which pair was fitter. The Indians did not let it go that way. It was crucial that the match not go beyond three sets for both are far from peak fitness as of now. It is good that those legs were not tested.
The tactical acumen of the pair arises from over a decade of familiarity. “We first came up with these plays in 1997. We still use the same. As long as we take care of our game, even if we do not play together, the chemistry will always remain,” said Bhupathi.
The Brazilian think-tank must have spent hours staring at the old tapes of the two. They must have pinpointed supposed weaknesses. But the world out on court is far removed from the digital drawing board. Nothing that the Brazilians tried cracked the Indian Express code.
It’s a question that they do not like. It’s been thrown at them too many times for comfort. But don’t they ever think about the ‘what if’ if they two would not have parted ways? “We have grown up a lot since then,” replied Paes. “We have grown to respect each other and what we did together. There are times I wish we would have been more mature. We did go our own ways but we both kept winning.”
Bhupathi too feels that they have both grown emotionally. “To sit back and wish it is easy but we both have set goals and as of now the Commonwealth Games is a common one. We would have probably won 15-20 slams but I prefer to live in the present,” he said.
It is extremely rare for instinctive understanding to unfold on court minus any matches together. After all, more than anything else theirs is a story of magic.
“That’s exactly what it is. It’s magic. I can’t explain it and am sure neither will Hesh be able to but I have never got the same (magic) with anyone else. It’s somehow like our karmas are connected,” sums up Paes.
Somdev Devvarman takes on Thomaz Bellucci in the first reverse singles on Sunday. What his karma dictates will decide India’s Davis Cup aspirations for next year.