When a quasi retired, multiple grand slam winner comes down to playing at the Challenger level, something’s certainly up.
Over the years, Mahesh Bhupathi has shown tremendous commitment towards mounting a credible Olympic challenge. In fact, he tried really hard to get his estranged partner Leander Paes to come around to playing a few tournaments together before the Beijing Olympics. Bhupathi went to the extent of negotiating a deal with a tyre major that was willing to pay up to a million dollars to see the two pair up on tour. An Olympic medal would have yielded another bonus of a million. At that time, Paes had turned him down as he felt there was no need to partner for more than a few warm-up events.
Bhupathi and Paes paired on the tour in 2011 and the former had presumed this would lead up to a serious challenge for the London Games. By the end of the year, however, there was a Paes-Bopanna pairing in the offing leading up to the 2012 Olympics. Caught by surprise, the canny Bhupathi then went on to turn the tables on the would-be partners by getting Bopanna to come around to his side.
That led to a bitter battle in the lead up to the Games with all three players firing salvos in public. It was the sorriest chapter in Indian tennis. The ripple effect of that particular sordidness has meant that the patriotism of tennis players has come under the scanner. Many people believe the players put their own interests ahead of the nation.
This writer does not agree with that perception. While Paes has been identified with playing for the flag, Bhupathi, in his own quiet manner, has also been incredibly driven. Bopanna is the simplest guy of the three, and one suspects that Bhupathi manages to tug him whichever way he wants. But that does not mean Bopanna is any less committed to gaining a medal for India.
Coming to the present, a jaded-looking Bhupathi is trudging through the lower echelons of the tour at the Delhi association courts in an attempt to boost his ranking. At 286, Bhupathi has eleven Indian players ranked higher than him. Coming down to a lower tournament means he should at least be able to pick up some easy points while gaining further match sharpness and confidence. He next goes to Dubai to take on an altogether different level of competition. In case his game clicks, it won’t be too difficult for Bhupathi to bound back up the rankings.
As of now, Paes is ranked 52 and is struggling for form. His personal troubles also seem to have mushroomed, and while the veteran has so far managed to keep his focus on court, he has not been too convincing this year. Bhupathi will look to capitalise on this in case his ranking gets a boost and pair with Bopanna for the Rio Olympics.
Tennis apart, each time he steps on court and is photographed, Bhupathi gets additional mileage for his sportswear brand Zeven that he is set to launch. That factor too can’t be negated when considering his appearance at Delhi.
Whatever Bhupathi says on record to negate his dream needs to be examined in light of the fact that it would be considered absurd for him to voice Olympian fantasies when he languishes so low in the rankings. Only if he manages to come close to Paes will he have a shot at the selection committee examining his case. Let’s see if he gets his game back first, then sit back, get our popcorn and get ready for another Indian tennis soap opera in an Olympic year. Sigh!