Four years ago, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi had a billion people fighting grogginess while being glued to the TV till early in the morning.
As they kept prodding and nudging at their twisted fate against Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic of Croatia for an Olympic bronze, India watched with bated breath. The ‘Indian Express’ had excelled on the ATP circuit but an Olympic medal they hadn’t managed.
Their partnership as a professional tennis team had imploded followed off-court fiascos but for the country, the chemistry and the chest bumps were still alive and kicking. They even had two match points but went on to lose 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 14-16.
In Beijing, those four hours of torment can still be heard in Paes’s voice. “I have won an individual medal. If we win a doubles medal that would be a fulfilment of a dream,” he said. “I don't know how we lost.”
The duo will start their campaign on Monday weather permitting, as the organisers plan to play matches under lights. They meet French pair of Gael Monfils and Gilles Simons in the first round. Into his fifth Olympics, Paes has a bronze and seven Grand Slam titles. Bhupathi has four Olympic appearances and 10 Grand Slam trophies.
A lot has changed since that fateful night in Athens, but nothing could mend their sour relationship, the nadir was reached at the Doha Asian Games in 2006. Finally just before the Olympics, they agreed to play 'for the nation', agreed to pursue a dream many thought died four years ago.
Despite odds tilted against them —they don’t see eye to eye, they were not on speaking terms till they made up their mind to unite for India, they are not the top doubles players anymore, they are not growing younger, either — Lee and Hesh will have a crack at an Olympic medal. It’s unlikely there will be another one.
Despite such handicaps, their reputation precedes them. Their names still give opponents sleepless nights. Monfils and Simons know what they are up against and will take them easy at their own peril.
Rain jeopardised practice on Monday. Paes has already said that he believed the pair have enough ammunition to beat anyone in the world. “All that we have to do is play to our potential,” he said. About the conditions and the newly-laid hardcourts, he said: “It's the same ball we need to hit. We can't worry about the conditions ? it's for everyone.” Critical of the seedings format, Bhupathi too is all set to give of his best. “We are here to win. We know what we are capable of and will do our best,” he said.
Sania takes on Benesova
Meanwhile, Sania Mirza will play her singles against Iveta Benesova of Czechoslovakia.
In women's doubles Sania and Sunitha Rao will begin their medal hunt against France. Weather permitting the two will play Tatiana Golovin and Paulin Permentier in their first round on Monday.
It has been raining incessantly and only nine matches were completed on Sunday, first day of tennis competition.