When they won the French Open at Roland Garros in 1999, it was actually the beginning of the end. It was the first time, recalls a much-hurt Leander Paes, that he flew alone to Paris, baffled at the absence of partner Mahesh Bhupathi who not only did not take the same flight but had switched off his phone too.
They still worked magic on the court, they became the first all-Indian pair to win a Grand Slam Championship, catapulting them to World No 1 in men’s doubles. “Two Indian boys,” as Lee put it. But they were like lovers who had chemistry in bed, sharing not a word out of it.
The making of two champions who came together as the greatest doubles partners India had ever seen, is interestingly documented by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Nitesh Tiwari.
In south India, there’s a tradition where a variety of professional options is laid out before a baby. When the infant crawls and picks up one of the tools, like a stethoscope, the parents beam, “Ah, he’s going to be a doctor.” Father Krishna Bhupathi chuckled and confessed that when Mahesh was a baby, he placed only tennis balls and bats before him – he had no choice but to crawl towards tennis.
Leander would’ve played for India whatever the sport. Whether cricket, football or hockey, he was champion material in every game, proudly revealed Hrishikesh Kannan, Lee’s Kolkata classmate and bestie. But an illness forced Lee out of contact sport, and so it was tennis.
Using footage from some of the best Grand Slam matches and interviews with coaches, colleagues, sports journalists, family and friends, the Iyer-Tiwari duo piece an absorbing story of how Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi rose, met and put India on the world tennis circuit. Each had his weakness which was covered by the strength of the other. Mahesh was tall, superb at serve. Leander was short and swift, crouched ably near the nets. It was as if they’d choreographed their moves as the ‘Indian Express’ lifted the cup at Wimbledon, their proudest moment ever. While the world watched to see what they’d pull off the next year at the same hallowed ground, “Next year never happened,” says Mahesh wryly.
Hrishi Kannan articulately calls it, ‘Chinese Whispers’. Both Leander and Mahesh fell prey to the chatter around them – coaches, friends, journalists, family, girlfriends too. Everybody had a part to play in what gnawed at the partnership and eroded it irrevocably. Illnesses, injuries and interpretations also entered the fray to spoil the day.
Like lovers who bicker and come together only to part again, colleagues like the Woodies and Sania Mirza watched as Lee-Hess uneasily attempted to rekindle their old chemistry. But after a gold at Doha that had equal drama off the courts, it was a partnership that was doomed to dive. A complete breakdown in communication.
It was like a marriage between opposites. Leander, a natural leader, gregarious, and generous if one were to go by his version. Mahesh, quiet, introverted, shy about opening up.
But both hurt each other.
The climb of the champs, the descent and the destruction are superbly chronicled by Iyer-Tiwari over seven episodes. It is a series that’s pure gold for tennis watchers and for those who want to know how fragile egos can build unscalable walls between partners.
If you’re looking for the other stuff that kept both in the headlines – Paes’ flings and contentious affairs, or Mahesh’s marriages, Iyer-Tiwari keep it strictly out of bounds. There’s not one single name, no Rhea, no Lara, mentioned. References to girlfriends are made in passing, identities left coyly undisclosed.
I guess a whole new series would have to been made to cover those ‘love matches’.
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