India will complete 75 years of Independence this year. Here is a series acknowledging 75 great sporting achievements by Indian athletes. Sportstar will present one iconic sporting achievement each day, leading up to August 15, 2022.
1999: Paes, Bhupathi reach men’s doubles finals of all four Grand Slams, win French Open and Wimbledon
“Fame is a bee
It has a song —
It has a sting —
Ah, too, it has a wing.” — Emily Dickinson
New Delhi, September 23, 1995: “They look so good together. They have tremendous potential. 1 am sure they will be a top team should they play together regularly on the Tour.”
– a senior Croatian tennis writer after watching Mahesh Bliupathi and Leander Paes win the doubles rubber for India against Goran Ivanisevic and Sasa Hirzon in the Davis Cup tie against Croatia.
Wimbledon, July 4, 1999: “These Indians are fantastic together. With the Woodies in decline, they can dominate the sport for many years to come. They are a class act.”
– an American tennis writer a few minutes after Bhupathi and Paes became the first Indians to win an Open title at Wimbledon.
Chennai, May 27, 2000: They looked so good. They were a top team. They were wonderfully dominant. They were fantastic together. And, not the least of all, they were a class act.
How quickly things change in the world of sport! As quick as a wink, a glorious present becomes a distant past. Before you can say Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, a wonderful certainty becomes a distressingly uncertain scenario. With the speed and venom of a Pete Sampras ace, What Is becomes What Was.
Sport doesn’t walk, it runs. And it runs with the speed and finesse of a Michael Johnson. It is a world without a forever, a world of kaleidoscopic changes, revolutionary make-overs, a world of seemingly trivial pursuits where Yesterday seems as extinct as the dinosaur and Tomorrow is already kicking in its womb by the time Today is born!
In the event, it is also a world where there is very little room for surprises. You cannot at all be surprised when you are constantly expecting change, when you know that every single day has four seasons, so to say. Yet, even the blindingly fast pace of modern sport doesn’t seem to prepare you for the Everest-today-abyss-tomorrow motif of one of the most incredible stories in Indian sport – the rise and fall of Bhupathi and Paes.
A year after becoming the first team in over decades to play in all the four Grand Slam finals of a season – winning two of them – the two men who ended 1999 as the best doubles team in the world have not played a single match together.
And, given all the dirty linen that is being washed in public, the chances of Bhupathi and Paes coming together on the Tour this season are about the same as Pete Sampras finally mastering the red clay of Roland Garros and winning the French Open – possible but unlikely.
Although the final nail has not been struck on the coffin and there is more than a mere sliver of hope for the optimists, the split has been rather acrimonious and it is going to take tremendous patience, perseverance and a genuine willingness to bury the past and look at the future with a sense of pragmatism for the two men to resume business together and find the sort of success they did last year. There is very little chance that such a miracle might be accomplished this season although Davis Cup and the Sydney Olympics are two events where there is too much at stake for the country and the two men might very well decide to put the country before self and hunt as a pair.
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi call on K.R. Narayanan, then the President of India in New Delhi in September 1999. – The Hindu Archives
Then again, all this is very much in the realm of speculation right now and it is too early in the day to talk about what sort of shape the broken relationship might assume if and when all the patient tinkering is done. But, let’s pause here a minute and consider this: how could so much have gone wrong for Bhupathi and Paes just when so much was going right?
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” wrote Thomas Gray. And the glory that the two men achieved together last season has certainly led them down the road to disaster.
Indeed, success has ruined more men than drugs and alcohol put together. But to be sure, what went wrong between the two Indian world beaters has nothing to do with their stupendous achievements of 1999.
In fact, the long simmering discontent could be seen and felt, so to say, as early as in January 1999. While there were several minor differences of opinion which never had the deadly potential to rock the boat and eventually sink it without a trace, there was one major issue that just couldn’t be resolved. Paes, for reasons best known to him, has always believed that Enrico Piperno, a former National finalist and a chirpy man from Calcutta who once coached him, was about as useful to the Bhupathi-Paes partnership as a bowl of sugar might be to the gas tank of a motor car.
Several times, Paes discussed the issue with his partner but did not seem to make much headway as Bhupathi saw his coach as a friend and a mentor and could hardly picture him as the villain that Paes believed he was.
And, by the time the caravan reached an exotic little island called Cheju at the tail end of the Korean peninsula in February last year, Paes was functioning in zombie mode. He had been isolated so much by the Bhupathi /Piperno/Jaideep Mukherjea trio that there were times when he sat alone in his hotel room and wept like a child. At that moment, what was also clear was this: it was going to take a lot of effort for Paes and Bhupathi to sweep everything under the carpet and continue to play winning tennis the rest of the season.
75 years of independence, 75 iconic moments from Indian sports: No 29 – March 11, 2001: Pullela Gopichand wins All-England Championships
That the two men managed to do just this when so much was going on away from the courts was certainly a tribute as much to their strength of character and professionalism as it was to their skills on the court. From the depressing depths of February 1999 to the Himalayan heights of Roland Garros and Wimbledon was the sort of leap that even the most gifted and optimistic of sportsmen seldom dare dream of.
Rather than being weighed down by the events of February/March, the two Indians used them as a spur to catapult themselves to the dizzy heights of back-to-back Grand Slam titles in Paris and Wimbledon.
And now, in the darkest hour of the famous firm, what seems to offer a ray of hope is the fact that Bhupathi and Paes achieved the apotheosis of their partnership at a time when they had to dodge so many landmines that threatened to blow up their relationship. If the two talented men managed to do this, then who can say that they will not be able to overcome the present crisis and get back together?
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Meanwhile, what Bhupathi and Paes will have to consider, more than anything else they might evaluate in their self-interest, is this: they owe their country, and their fans, that one last effort to reconcile their differences during a year when they have a great chance to win a gold medal for India in Sydney.
On the other hand, if they allow narrow self-interest to prevail over larger objectives, they might end up as just another pair of champions who, like a majority of men, were satisfied with their 15 minutes of fame.
[This article by late Nirmal Shekar was first published in The Sportstar issue dated June 3, 2000]