I had read about Ramanathan Krishnan and Vijay Amritraj in Wisdom magazine and Competition Success Reviews; in GK quizzes and on Bournvita Quiz Contests. But they belonged to a different era – they existed in black and white photographs and colourful memories.
But when Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi broke into the scene, they made a gigantic, whooping splash!
They were all over – winning Grand Slams, gracing the covers of sports magazines, featuring in advertisements on TV and on hoardings atop buildings. They were young, brash and excelling at a sport India had never been good at. Now, I cannot lie. Cricket was still my primary love, and if an issue of Sportstar didn’t feature cricket on the cover, I’d probably not purchase it. But if Lee-Hesh were the Star Poster of the Week, I’d be pleasantly happy.
There was something about the two of them.
Even as 10 year olds, we knew that cricket was played among only 8 nations. But this was tennis, a fast-paced aggressive sport. Being ruled by two young Indians who were handsome, suave and the best in the world.
Even their names sounded fresh – ‘Paes’ – rhymes with pace, brace, grace. And Bhu-pathi – the Lord of the land, who stood at the baseline – his fierce, powerful serve unlike anything from an Indian before.
Together, Lee-Hesh were a force to reckon with.
First pairing up in 1995, the two youngsters went on to string together a career wins record of 303-103. They hold the record for the longest winning streak in Davis Cup, with 23 straight wins. They won 3 grand slam titles, graced the finals thrice, and won a whopping 26 ATP tournaments. They were the world’s top ranked doubles team for nearly a decade, bulldozing through grass and clay courts.
They were suave, pleasant to the eye, smooth with the media. They gave out speeches, featured in ads and even flirted with Bollywood – Paes has acted in a movie and Bhupathi is married to Lara Dutta.
And then in 2006, it all came crashing down.
Having won the Doubles Gold at the Asian Games in Doha, Bhupathi is quoted to have announced their split. In his own words, ‘Honestly, our story is the biggest tragedy that has ever happened to Indian sport, and I say that I am glad that this tragedy ended on a high note with a gold in the Asian Games,”.
And that is when the soap opera started. Paes gave Bhupathi grief for hiring his ex-coach. Bhupathi complained that Paes cheated on him with another doubles partner while he recovered from an injury.
The duo maintained that they would return to play for the country in Davis Cup and Olympics, but that has come with its own set of shenanigans. After much speculation, they teamed up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, managing to reach the quarters. Individually, they had both moved on to different partners.
When it was time for the next Olympics (2012, London), three members of the Indian contingent announced they didn’t want anything to do with Paes. Sania Mirza, who by then was India’s biggest tennis star (by far!) opined that she was being used as a bait between the two. Paes’ father, the hockey Olympian Vece Paes demanded an undertaking in writing from Mirza. Because what is an epic Indian battle without the father playing his part? There were also reports of Leander having called Sania Mirza a ‘fatty’, a comment that didn’t go down too well with her (or Shoaib Malik, I’d presume!).
It’s been 22 years since the two men partnered each other on a tennis court. Since then, their equation resembles a couple who need counseling. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have gotten back together, broken up, bitched about each other, patched up, and then broken up again.
Bhupathi has referred to Paes as a problematic character, and Paes has pointed to the fact that he has won many more medals for the nation – a posh way of saying ‘Tera aukaat kya hai, bhadwe?’
Before every Olympics and Davis Cup, the two of them start their drama – bitching, cribbing, mud-slinging. I doubt there are any international sportsmen who bicker and shame each other in public as Paes and Bhupathi. Forget washing dirty linen in public, Paes and Bhupathi have set up open-air laundromat for themselves. Their fights are ugly, petty, and fed to a hungry media waiting to bite the flesh off their bodies. Instead of becoming inspirational senior pros who guide the next generation, Paes and Bhupathi have shamelessly entwined younger players like Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza in their squabbles.
I think back to the days when I would read of their exploits on Sportstar, and it fills me with sadness. To see the two faces of Indian tennis metamorphose into an ugly Two-Face, each taking turns to be gracious and disgusting.
How much longer will this bickering go on? Yesterday, Bhupathi released on Twitter screenshots of their WhatsApp conversations – much like a couple of teenagers bickering over a school match.
Paes and Bhupathi are no more the strapping youngsters who chest-bumped each other in full glory after winning grand slams around the world. They are both over 40 years old. Paes continues to play, harnessing superhuman power even after battling a brain tumour. Bhupathi is one of the most important personalities in Indian tennis – Davis Cup (non-playing) captain and a coach instrumental in the rise of younger players like Mirza and Bopanna.
The phrase ‘give back to the game’ might sound like a cliche in the age we live in. An age when aging cricketers continue to peddle endorsements and brand associations. An age when sports-persons’ popularity is affected not only by the medals they win, but how many likes they got on Instagram pictures. ‘To give back to the game’ sounds like an old-fashioned deed to do.
And yet, it is exactly in this aspect that Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have failed miserably. If you could travel back to the time when I used to read their interviews under the desk in a Geography class, you’d see the image of Indian tennis I had.
Of Indian tennis players storming the world circuit. Winning grand slams, top 10 world ranking in doubles and singles. Of tennis becoming the second most popular sport in India.
What we have instead, are two aging players constantly duelling it out in matches of ‘Mera lund bada hai’.
Featured Image courtesy: India Today (Check out their impressive coverage of the Lee-Hesh saga.
If you’re a fan of cricket, me and Rohit (@rhtswn) will be touring the country with Silly Point – India’s First Cricket Based Stand Up Show. Please come down, and drag your friends along!