Big two back in the hunt

Tennis

Big two back in the hunt

WINNERS' DANCE: Leander Paes (left) and Mahesh Bhupathi are eager to prove a point at the Australian Open.

As individuals they differ from each other as chalk would from cheese. Where Leander Paes is a man of many words and myriad opinions, Mahesh Bhupathi has few words to spare and fewer opinions. And where Paes is given to dramatics, Bhupathi appears rather subdued while expressing himself. The on-court chemistry that they exhibit in such abundance is difficult to spot off it. That's probably one of the reasons why two of the greatest exponents of the game of tennis doubles spent the better part of their playing careers more apart than together, even if they stood to lose more in the bargain. 

Now, closer to the twilight of their respective playing days than the beginning, Paes, 37, and Bhupathi, 36, have once again joined hands to complete some of the tasks they left unaccomplished. Their latest reunion, the fourth since they came together for the first time in 1996, has begun from where it had all started: Chennai Open. Paes-Bhupathi's fifth title win at India's only ATP event last Sunday only reaffirmed the belief in the veteran duo's ability to create magic. Helped in no small measure by a raucous crowd, the Indian Express virtually came from the dead in almost all its matches to land the spoils; a perfect start in their quest for one elusive Grand Slam, the Australian Open.

It will be a fantastic tribute to their on-court chemistry if they triumph in Melbourne. "It will be really romantic if we do so," remarked Bhupathi only half in jest. "We have got enough chemistry on the court, enough maturity. As you have seen here (Chennai), enough fight and will to win... We are going to do everything we can and give it a good shot in Melbourne."

Of course their legs aren't as quick as they used to be nine years ago (when they separated), neither are their shoulders as strong. With more young teams strutting around, Paes-Bhupathi will have to squeeze out every ounce of their energy to fulfil their desire. "Feels great," noted Bhupathi of their latest doubles victory. "But I don't think the body feels like (it used to) nine years ago..."

Experience, Paes pointed out, will be the crucial factor in their favour. "With all the new teams around and we having so many years of experience, whenever there is a crunch moment we come back to the team work. One of the advantages that we have is there is so much understanding between us," said the Kolkatan. The fact that they put up a united front whenever it came to representing the country -- be it at Davis Cup, the Olympics, the Asian Games  -- has also helped them retain the much-needed co-ordination.

"We are here for so long because no one has really pushed us," Bhupathi chipped in. "At the same time we have been able to play high level of tennis, it's been 14 years now. We are really proud of that longevity. Similarly, there are young guns and we are still able to come out on top. There are a few things that we have to work on. We know we are not playing perfect tennis, we are going to work on them and go to the Australian Open even better prepared," he elaborated.

Paes thought at this stage of their careers it was just the love of the game that was driving them for more. "At the end of the day it's a long season, a tough season. So really at this stage of our careers, we are playing because we are passionate about the game, we love the game and I certainly want to play because I always want to learn new things. Last week I learned how to overcome illness as in not feeling really great but then turning it around. I think that's the fun thing about sport, it keeps your life so clear. Every Monday of every week ... How good you are or how bad you are, your strengths and weaknesses. So you can keep improving. I think some new teams there are really going to be dangerous and we actually have to be ready for them," he stated.

Wiser by the bitter experiences in the past, the two aren't looking at their association beyond the Australian Open at the moment. "Just take it one at a time and enjoy the moment. No point in looking too far ahead," felt Paes trying to temper the high expectations. "Just slow down... I think part of the problem we had before was we got so ahead of ourselves that we couldn't enjoy the process.  Even when you are playing tennis, you don't want to think too much because the team is so solid in certain things we don't want to over think things, you don't want to over talk some things. And that's something I am going to do this time. Just to enjoy the process and enjoy the good things and also the not so good things," he explained.

Together on court the duo are sure to provide many good moments for Indian tennis fans. “Yeah I am sure a lot of people are excited and a lot of tennis fans have been wanting for this (reunion) to happen for years. There are some young teams which bring a different energy to the doubles, but I think we can give them a good run for their money.” Australia, here they come...!

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