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It’s time for magic again

Lee-Hesh’s first joint interview in over a decade offers a rare glimpse into their renewed camaraderie. Sukhwant Basra reports. Different folks | Together strong | Fit enough | Joining forces

sports Updated: Dec 14, 2010 01:24 IST
Sukhwant Basra

It's time for magic. But do the magicians think they still have their charms - you know the ones that mersmerised the tennis world as they shot to the top of the rankings mountain in 1999? "I don't know if we think, we hope, in one word," says Bhupathi.

"For us coming back together again is not like a new team starting fresh. There's tremendous history there, there's the fact that we know each other's games," adds Paes.

Then, there's the strategic bit. "Unlike other years only two great pairs have stuck together this year. That gives us an edge. While other teams will be figuring out their moves, we'll be unleashing ours," says Paes.

"Not having to go that deep, our rankings are five and six in the world. Obviously, we are right there, no matter whom we play with. We have had a lot of success together in the past and when playing for India," adds Bhupathi.

Talking helps

What brought about this reconciliation at this juncture?

"A conversation. A simple conversation and self-belief. We never won the Australian Open together and that's something we both want badly," says Paes.

But why not before?

"There were times we talked about playing together but I was already stuck into a partnership that had won a Grand Slam… there's also a respect that has come in over the years. Our relationship has got a little more relaxed, got more fun, we don't poke our nose in each other's business as much," says Paes.

"Last time we had a conversation, it was going pretty well till he ended up winning the US Open with Martin Damm. So, what are you going to do? Dump someone after you win a Slam? It's not that simple," defends Bhupathi.

That, then, was the underlying refrain throughout this interaction. Both were extremely supportive and even if there were differences of opinion, unlike the past there were no veiled potshots. At each other, that is. This reporter who has called them fat and unfit though was at the receiving end of some.

"I am just going to stay the way I am. I won two Grand Slams this year the way I am, so I am fine," bristles Paes when asked if he is going to get fitter for the opening Slam.

But then, the question has to be asked. "Mahesh, is he slower than before?" The retort is like one of those bazookas the 6'1" Indian fires off pretty often. "I really don't understand the question. The fact of the matter is that we are getting older every year. Are we slower? I don't' know. But we have been in the top-10 for the last 12 years. If we are slower or not, it's not affecting our rankings. Last year Leander won two slams, slower or not. I made two finals, slower or not. We are still beating everybody."

Not so exclusive

Is it a fair allegation that doubles is an exclusive club and that you guys do well only because the top singles players don't play?

Looks can't kill. Thankfully. "The top-five guys don't play doubles. Apart from that everybody plays. If you want to say singles players are only top-five, your call. Everybody else plays," responds Bhupathi. Both our stalwarts are looking to cut back on their tennis next year. Both are going to be playing about 15 events. But the big ask is as to how many they will pair up for?

"We haven't really discussed it. For us it's a big step forward that we are going to play a Grand Slam after so many years. We'll see how we enjoy it. We are both not committed to full time partners next year so everything's possible, everything is open right now," says Bhupathi giving a ray of hope to their fans. While Bhupathi has his upcoming marriage with actor Lara Dutta and other business commitments — he's even getting into movie production —Paes has his own movies to spare time for.

But what does Bhupathi think of Paes as an actor? "It's a perfect fit," he laughs. Why?

"Through our profession we learnt to succeed at what we try to do. Everyone says it's hard for him to get in at this age. But knowing him as a person, I am pretty sure he's going to do what it takes to make sure he succeeds. From what I am hearing from his manager, apparently he's a natural (big grin)." Paes chips in: "The manager is paid to say nice things!"

‘Paes is special’

There is no chance for a retake out in the middle of a tennis court. And then, there are the expectations whenever the two pair up. "From each other, yeah! Every time I play with Leander, I play to win. I definitely go in for every tournament thinking I have a good chance of taking on whoever the top seeds are there," says Bhupathi. Does that happen only with him? "Yes." Why is that? It's possibly a comfort level. For I know that we have won so much in the past —so many big tournaments — I know that no matter who's on the other side, we always have a chance.

Even though they refuse to consider just why they did not reconcile earlier, Bhupathi is quite clear that Paes has always been the one for him. "I am able to hit my serve in the right spot where I want to for 90% of the time and I have a very good return. He knocks away everything that comes back on my serve. Nobody complements me better than him so we become a champion team."

"I think there is a friendship deep down behind it all," adds Paes. "And there is respect that has grown over the years. There's maturity and maybe the respect and the maturity now has brought that friendship back. It's time to move on and look forward to the dreams we want to achieve together once again."

Different folks | Together strong | Fit enough | Joining forces