The ugly war of words between Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi has shocked everyone. The two were India’s hope for a medal in the tennis doubles event at the Olympics. Then Bhupathi called Paes a “liar and a back-stabber” the day the All India Tennis Association (AITA) named them as the official Indian team for London. There was no question of them playing together. The very next day, Rohan Bopanna, the next big tennis star, also issued a statement saying that he would not partner Paes at the Olympics. AITA then decided to send two teams to London: Bhupathi-Bopanna and Paes-Vishnu Vardhan. Paes wasn’t happy becaue Vardhan was placed 209 in the ATP rankings. Meanwhile, in an open letter, Sania Mirza criticised the way AITA had used her as a “bait” to pacify Paes: for his “sacrifice” Paes would be allowed to partner Mirza in the mixed doubles. On Friday, Paes finally agreed to partner Vardhan but took potshots at his former partner: “I won’t let petty politics come in the way of hard work and good tennis.”
What explains the extraordinary acrimony between Paes and Bhupathi? Is it super-sized egos, clash of interest or interfering fathers? Actually, it’s a combination of all of these.
To understand the genesis of this clash, rewind to the late 1990s. Paes was the rising star of Indian tennis, and had won a bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. That turned him overnight into a national celebrity. Hefty brand endorsements followed. That was also the time he began to partner Bhupathi in doubles events. Their partnership flourished. In 1999, they reached the finals off all the four Grand slams and won two: Wimbledon and French Open. Together they were the “Indian Express”, dark and muscular chest-thumpers. Those who have known the players for long say that it was never a partnership of equals — Paes was always the bigger star of the two. Possibly, that might have rankled Bhupathi. In spite of being equally responsible for the team’s achievements, he was seen as the lesser partner. The first signs of rupture were visible in 2000 when Paes’ father, Vece Paes, announced that the pair was splitting but would play together in the Davis Cup and Olympics in the national interest.
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The next flashpoint came around the same time. Enrico Piperno, who was Paes’ coach, had started working with Bhupathi as well. Things didn’t work out between Paes and Piperno, and the two decided to part ways. Paes wanted Bhupathi to leave Piperno as well. But an assertive Bhupathi decided against it “as he wanted to be his own man and not rely on Paes for everything”, says an AITA official. The rift was serious.
At the same time, while Paes and Bhupathi continued to play together in the Olympics, Asian Games and Davis Cup, they started to find success with other partners. In 2002 they teamed up for the Busan Asian Games and won gold. “They were professional and kept their differences aside,” says former tennis player Gaurav Natekar. Bhupathi was even quoted as saying that he didn’t mind playing with Paes as long as it helped the country.
Beneath the calm, hostility was simmering. Paes has always backed AITA — that AITA returns the favour was evident from events of last week. When Bhupathi floated Globosport, his celebrity management company, in 2002 and started working with young tennis players, and his father, C G K Bhupathi, started the Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academies in Bangalore, Pune, and other cities, AITA didn’t take it well. By extension, this piqued Paes as well. This created a further rift.
“They are both complex characters with huge egos,” says a former Davis Cupper. However, the ego clashes weren’t evident during Davis Cup outings, and, in front of younger players, they were respectful of each other. “We never saw any arguments,” adds the player.
But the acrimony couldn’t be contained for long. In February 2008, four tennis players — Bopanna, Prakash Amritraj, Karan Rastogi and Bhupathi — told AITA that they wouldn’t play in the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan under Paes. Bopanna even said that as long as Paes was captain, he wouldn’t play the Davis Cup. Amritraj went a step ahead and said “this man [Paes] has taken away the joy of playing Davis Cup”. Bhupathi was seen as instigating the younger players. AITA functionaries neither confirm nor deny the charge. “It was a misunderstanding but was resolved,” says an AITA official. Bhupathi opted out of the tie against Uzbekistan but Bopanna partnered Paes. Bhupathi eventually came back to the team, but the rift had widened. This was a few months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The two eventually teamed up for Beijing, only to lose in the quarter finals.
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In 2011, Bhupathi and Paes announced they were teaming up again for the London Olympics. They reached the Australian Open final in 2011 and won two ATP Masters Series events as well. “We knew things weren’t all that great but they seemed amicable,” says Natekar. Both players said that they had come together on a month-to-month basis and would see how things went.
Meanwhile, Bhupathi formed a partnership with Bopanna at the end of 2011 and started playing with him regularly. Paes also hinted in February 2012 that he was looking for a younger partner but ultimately it would be AITA’s decision. And now the split is wide open — the earlier restraint on calling each other names is gone. It will be a miracle if the two ever come together again. Anyway, Paes is 39 and Bhupathi 38. They don’t have much professional tennis left to play.
Their sparring hasn’t gone down well in the tennis community. Akhtar Ali, former Davis Cupper and tennis veteran, says that both players have acted selfishly: “No one should lay down conditions for participating in the Olympics.” Ali says that differences have always existed between doubles players but that’s no reason for threatening to turn your back on the country. “They should have either committed to playing or said that they won’t play together at all.”
But then nothing about the “Indian Express” has ever been so straight forward.