‘Our friendship was at its lowest when we were standing on podiums’
- Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi reflect on a career that featured great professional highs and acute personal lows.
Three Grand Slam trophies, 23 ATP titles, the world No. 1 ranking, setting the Davis Cup record for most doubles victories (24) --- the Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi doubles pairing that began to blossom from the mid-1990s gave Indian tennis what no one had in the past, and what no one probably can in the near future.
Their games and nature a study in contrasts, the two forged the most natural partnership to create real magic. But the near-perfect dream was awakened to reality, with the two going separate ways just as they hit the peak due to reasons varying from personal to professional to simply a clash of two strong personalities.
Coming together for an upcoming web series on them titled Break Point, Paes and Bhupathi relive their journey of success and separation and of the highs and lows that made them one of the most incredible doubles pair in tennis history.
Excerpts from an interview:
Would you call your success together in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the highest point of Indian sport, let alone Indian tennis, back then?
Bhupathi: Possibly. Tennis being the most global sport probably after football, to be able to excel at the highest level in that was special and definitely in the Indian context, a big highlight.
Paes: Maybe because until then no one had become the No. 1 in the world in team sport. When Mahesh and I reached the top, we were pioneering through Indian sport to prove that there could be champions out of India. We were proving that we could be world beaters. There was no know-how, no knowledge, no theory in the book to tell us how to do it. And that’s what made it unique.
You won a bunch of Challengers together before your first ATP Tour title in Chennai in 1997. What do you remember of the early days of your partnership… was there something that clicked instantly?
Paes: The partnership was very instinctive. I had a dream when I was 16, and he was 15, that we could win Wimbledon together. It was an intuition. As bold as I am, I went straight up to him and asked him, “Would you like to win Wimbledon together?” This was in our first meeting. He said, “You’re crazy”. I said, “I know, but would you like to win Wimbledon and be No. 1 in the world together?” I recognised clearly that he had a very good backhand; that he wouldn’t be as fast—which was going to be my responsibility—but he was tall. But this is all the technical stuff. The other stuff, which is what I call magic, is very hard to put into words. That was my intuition.
Bhupathi: We played together for the first time in 1994 in a Challenger in Jakarta. Next year, we played again in another Challenger in Aruba. We tasted success pretty quickly; I think we were undefeated in both those tournaments (they gave a walkover in the Jakarta final). So it became obvious that there’s something to pursue there, because with no practice to be able to deliver those results was great. Then we paired up for the Davis Cup match against Croatia (in 1995) and beat them. It was automatic progression that something was there to be nurtured.
Was it also a natural partnership in terms of your different game styles and personalities?
Paes: Our game styles complemented each other very well, and our coaches trained us that way—made Mahesh work on his backhand to play the ad court, made me work on my forehand to play the deuce court; made Mahesh cover the high balls so his movement back to smash was important, my movement laterally to cover the net and the low balls was important. Also, the patterns to hit certain shots where the sum of two individuals is greater than the two was crucial. That’s how we worked on making our partnership so smooth and so perfect. Because we weren’t striving just to be national champions, we were striving to be world champions.
Bhupathi: It was a natural partnership because the chemistry was apparent. That’s how I would describe it.
What was it about the 1999 season—where you reached all four Grand Slam finals, won two (French Open and Wimbledon) of them and became the world No. 1—that worked wonders for you as a pair?
Bhupathi: It was the best season we had only because people remember the Grand Slam results. I mean, if you look at 1997, we won six (ATP) titles, 1998 we won another six. In 1999, we only won three out of which two were Slams. But we won the right tournaments and made it to No. 1 in the world, which made it super special.
Paes: It was a culmination of all the work we had put in over the previous seasons. Every single year starting from 1995, we kept ascending until we conquered the world.
Then came the phase of separation. There could have been many factors behind it but, in hindsight, was it something that couldn’t be fixed at all, or could it have been had things been handled differently?
Paes: Everything in life can be fixed if the people involved in it are willing to, and more importantly, have the knowledge to fix it. I don’t think at that point we had the knowledge to fix it. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have had an elder statesman who had a little more wisdom and maturity than we did when we were two young Indian boys out there conquering the world. We were so focused on doing that, and winning everything, that we forgot to look beyond that. So hence when we won Wimbledon and became No. 1 in the world, we didn’t know what else. And when you achieve success, there are so many other people and situations that jump on to the bandwagon. That’s when the cracks start appearing. At the end of the day, regardless of all those situations and people, the responsibility is ours. And we take full responsibility for it.
Bhupathi: Look, at that point, obviously the separation was necessary. Could we have fixed it then and there? I’m sure we could have. But we didn’t. And that’s the way the cookie crumbled.
Yet in the middle of that sometimes-on-sometimes-off split, you managed to win the French Open in 2001. Was there clearly still some spark within that could’ve lit things up again?
Bhupathi: It did, and that’s why we won the French Open! So definitely the spark was there. We worked hard, came back and won another Grand Slam.
Paes: The cracks were there as well. Looking back, some of the nuances of those cracks were incredible. In some of the highest moments of our careers—winning Grand Slams, Davis Cup—we actually weren’t even speaking. The friendship was at its lowest at times when we were standing on the podiums and receiving trophies. And it doesn’t matter whether Mahesh is right or wrong or whether Leander is right or wrong. Those were two young Indian boys trying to be the best they could be.
Despite those cracks, you kept playing together for India in Davis Cup and multi-nation events. How challenging was it to keep your differences aside and deliver on the court, especially with all sorts of rumours and theories floating around your strained relationship?
Paes: It’s incredibly difficult because we are human. And you’re trying to achieve something which is beyond human. Hence, there has to be systems in place, a team in place that is in it for the betterment of the entire team. I was able to envision that as a 16-year-old, and implement that vision until we won those Grand Slams and became world No. 1. But the distractions didn’t allow me to see beyond that. I wish I had the peace of mind and the support cast to give me the space to see beyond that, because I was the senior partner. That said, I can sit today and take the responsibility for myself.
Bhupathi: It was actually never challenging for me. I enjoyed playing Davis Cup, because we knew how well we play together. So even though we weren’t playing together on the Tour, the fact that we had to come together every now and then to play for the country was exciting for us.
You reunited on the Tour after a gap in 2011, won three titles and even reached the Australian Open final before another abrupt end. Did the results surprise you?
Paes: Not at all, because we were still undefeated in Davis Cup. On the court, we knew how to win. But off the court, you also have to practice similarly. On the court and off it is two separate playgrounds altogether. So as much as we were working on the court, off the court things were falling apart. The cracks were seeping, and that’s what we could have done better.
Bhupathi: It didn’t surprise us. Individually, we were both ranked around the top-10 in the world. So once we came together, we always did well.
Looking back, if you guys had carried on the way you did in the late 90s both on and off the court, was sky the limit for this partnership?
Bhupathi: I would say so. But my question is: would it have made anyone else happier? And who? I mean, people say Indian fans were upset and disappointed. I say, why where they disappointed? Because before we came along, there was no one winning Grand Slams at all!
Paes: It’s funny. We won three Slams together, set records together. But if we had won 10 Slams together, people would have said you can win 20. That’s human instinct. What I’d like to celebrate is what we did achieve. And use that to motivate the next generation that they can become champions in any field.
How would you describe your relationship now having gone through the good, the bad and even the ugly?
Bhupathi: The chemistry is always there. It’s not going to go anywhere. Even now if we practice for two weeks and play, I’m sure we’ll be able to give—at least for one set—a good run for the money to anybody.
Paes: Our brotherhood has always been alive. It’s just like any other brotherhood, where you have differences of opinion, fights, arguments, ego plays. We weathered every storm together; sometimes distantly where we don’t talk and sometimes together where we do. But the one thing we’ve been able to do is be there for each other. And as different as we are as characters, as different as we behave or as different as we do our business, reliving this journey through this series was a great healing. We addressed certain issues that weren’t addressed in 20 years. We actually spoke about certain things and were able to laugh at each other, saying “arre tune kya kiya (what did you you)”, “arre maine kya kiya (what did I do)”. We were able to look at certain things and say, “you know what, maybe I should have done this differently or maybe you should have done this differently”. So it is almost like life has come a full circle.