Idea Exchange: “As elder partner, I should have picked up the phone to talk to Mahesh”; Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi tell all

October 17, 2021 11:11 AM

Often called the ‘Indian Express’, Paes and Bhupathi have 30 Grand Slam titles between them. They were the first-ever Indian doubles pair to reach the World No 1 spot, and still hold the unbroken world record of 24 Davis Cup doubles wins on the trot. Just as famous as their tennis though was their unpleasant split. They recently launched a tell-all docuseries, Break Point.

Mahesh and myself have been getting offers over the last 20 years and that was to do a Bollywood feature film

Former doubles World No 1 tennis players Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes talk about winning despite differences, the missed medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the great value in all that they achieved, and finding closure in a tell-all docuseries. This session was moderated by Senior Correspondent Shahid Judge.

Shahid Judge: Both of you have had experience in front of the camera. But how does this docuseries compare to that?

Paes: Mahesh and myself have been getting offers over the last 20 years and that was to do a Bollywood feature film. None of that really excited us because we personally felt that to tell a 20-year story of how two young Indian boys pioneered through an ecosystem of sport that did not teach us how to win Wimbledon… we could not tell that story in a 90- or 120-minute feature film. So we decided to do a docuseries (Break Point).

Bhupathi: The way (directors Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Nitish Tiwari) wanted to tell the story, which was very real and very raw and not just with the two of us, but with family, friends, partners, colleagues, rivals, media who followed us at the time — I mean they are all part of the narrative. I don’t think it could get any realer than this, which is a first in an Indian context. No sports story has ever been told in this format before.

Shahid Judge: Winning the Chennai Open in 1997, your first tour-level title, what did that do for your careers?

Paes: The Chennai Open has always been very special for us. For one, it was about playing in our backyard. Two, the conditions were perfect for us to play and win in. Three, to come back home and play the only tournament on Indian soil. It was a huge thrill for us to actually celebrate with our fans. Even through our differences, even through us not getting along well sometimes – sometimes we weren’t even communicating on the court, or off it — but still today, India has the world record of 24 undefeated Davis Cup matches in a row. That record is going to be very tough to break.

Nihal Koshie: Do you guys have anything in common other than the trophies you have won? Is there a common love or passion for anything that you guys share?

Bhupathi: When we were travelling, we shared a passion for food, music and movies. I mean these are things that we did day in and day out together.

Paes: But more importantly, there is a bond in this brotherhood where I feel we complete each other. Things that Mahesh can do, I can’t do and vice versa. We have learnt over the years to celebrate each other’s differences, we can even laugh at each other’s differences. Back then, in the late 90s, we were so engrossed in each other’s lives that even if a heartbeat was different, it mattered. Even if one of us was looking in another direction for two minutes, the other would be like, ‘What are you looking at? Concentrate on this.’

But when you’re stuck in it, in this big bad world we live in, where everybody is scrambling for success… we forget to stop and actually smell the roses. But we’re all running the race of life so hard that we forget to take a moment and ask each other, ‘hey Hesh, how are you doing? We won Wimbledon yesterday, but how are you doing?’

Nihal Koshie: You have mentioned that there were tournaments where you didn’t talk to each other for whatever reason. How difficult was it and would talking to each other have helped?

Bhupathi: Twenty years later, when you’re reliving your story, it’s easy to live in hindsight. But that’s not a luxury any of us here have… Could we have done things differently? I’m sure we both could have. But we still remain extremely proud of what we have achieved.

Mihir Vasavda: Looking back now, do you feel that if things were better between the two of you, the generations that followed you would have benefited? Perhaps there would be more Grand Slam winners and Olympic medals?

Bhupathi: No, absolutely not. We won three Grand Slams. Nobody had won a Slam before we were around. If we won five, you guys would have said we should have won seven. If we won 10, you guys would have said we should have won 15. That’s the nature of the beast.

As far as the Olympics go, the only people who can clarify this is Leander and me. We know the quality of players we played against at the Olympics. We know the preparation we did. We were always playing super high-quality tennis. We put ourselves in positions to win a medal twice. Roger Federer had other plans once (2008), once we froze against the Germans (2004).

But if anybody tells me if we played five years together with each other we would have been guaranteed an Olympic medal, then that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Tushar Bhaduri: Leander, when you started playing Davis Cup, Ramesh Krishnan had to be converted to a doubles player because there wasn’t a large talent pool. Same thing happened when Mahesh came in, it was just you two playing the entire tie. Would it have been easier if you had some more players to take some of the load off you?

Paes: I was fortunate that Ramesh came out of retirement in Davis Cup to play in 1993. We had a great run all the way — beating the French in Frejus. So you are right — Ramesh transformed his singles game into doubles. By the time Mahesh came around in Davis Cup, I knew we needed a larger talent pool. In Jaipur, under the captaincy of Jaidip Mukerjea, I fought them tooth and nail and told them you’ve got to see this young kid Mahesh Bhupathi. Put him in the tie against South Africa (1994). They basically said no, we can’t try him, he’s not played on the tour, he’s in college, and this and that. In practice, we were hammering everybody. Yet, they didn’t believe in it, they played Gaurav Natekar in that tie and we lost. Now, look what he (Mahesh) has won in his own individual career. He became India’s first Grand Slam champion, and he’s won 12 of them. That’s huge. Yes, there were times when I felt in my Davis Cup career that I wish there was a larger pool of talent to take the work load, because it takes months to recover after a Davis Cup tie.

Shivani Naik: Something broke us when the Athens Olympics didn’t go your way. Can you take us through the hours after that match?

Bhupathi : I don’t think I talked to anybody in the world for the next few days. It was the worst moment of my career. People tried to pat us on the back, but we knew the opportunity that we lost can’t be explained unless you go through it. We were so close and we didn’t get it done. We knew the disappointment each of us felt for the team, ourselves, and the country. Even today, every medal is a premium. But it was just pure disappointment. The definition of ‘disappointment’ in the dictionary, you can put that time and date if you want.

Paes: Athens was (like) a stake in the heart. I had worked so hard to lose all the weight, get into shape for Athens. And then to have that off-day against the Germans (Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuttler) is a real kicker. The four teams that were in the semi-finals, nine out of 10 times, Mahesh and I would not only be on the podium but we’d have the gold medal. That one hurts very badly.

I look back at the bronze medal match, one movement, one stay longer, one shot a fraction of an inch on Mario Ancic’s volley — and we would be sitting here with our Olympic medal.

Devendra Pandey: Mahesh, if a Bollywood movie is made on the two of you, who should be cast?

Bhupathi: I am a big Amitabh Bachchan fan and I would love him to play me but 35 years ago. Today, I don’t know.

Paes: And then who would you have played me?

Bhupathi: Someone shorter (laughs).

Paes: Aamir?

Bhupathi: Govinda! Bade Miyan, Chotte Miyan.

Shahid Judge: There have been complaints that the All India Tennis Association (AITA) has not been involved in creating world-class players. But you also came up from the same system, or lack of system…

Bhupathi: All of us had support from a particular ecosystem. I know Leander had talent and he was adopted by the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy (BAT), Sania Mirza had GVK Industries to support her from the time she was 10. I was living with my parents in the Middle East and we had the resources for whatever was needed to be done. These are all miracle stories. If you are expecting miracles to happen, it will.

This is why you have 10 French guys, 10 Spanish and 10 Americans in the top 100 because they all have systems. We don’t have a system. I don’t think it’s a fair thing to say that you guys have made it despite the system, so what about today’s players not making it because there is no system. How can anybody make it?

Sriram Veera: Leander, there was an incident in your childhood involving you and your friend on a cycle banging into a black Ambassador car. Can you tell us that story?

Paes: That story is about my friend and Man Friday Liaqat. He would take me everywhere on his bicycle, from my house to the school every morning, football practice, tuition and back to South Club for tennis. One day we were coming down Theatre Road on the wrong side of a one-way street because we were late for tennis practice. And this black Ambassador came straight at us and we rode right into it. I started abusing the driver and hitting the bonnet of the car only to raise my head and realise it was my father. I got a hiding that evening!

Sriram Veera: You mentioned the look in Mahesh’s eyes after winning Wimbledon, and that you did not have the maturity then to interpret it. What was the look and how would you have liked to interpret it?

Paes: Mahesh is quite introverted. He never expressed much, he never verbalised a lot. So back then, when things weren’t going so great, I would look at Mahesh’s body language to understand what he was feeling or I would look at his eyes, which are quite expressive, to understand what he was thinking. When we won Wimbledon, Hesh’s first reaction was to put his head in his hands. I looked at him to see what he was thinking and his head was inside a Wimbledon towel and then I looked away. The timing of life is such that I looked away just as he looked back at me. And that is the look I’m talking about. The look in Mahesh’s eye, in that instant, of what I know of him, showed me how much love and passion he had for me and for the team. Maybe he didn’t have the ability to verbalise it. Maybe I should have picked up the phone next morning and asked him to come and have breakfast together. Or asked him why he wasn’t there at my mixed-doubles match the night before, which might have hurt me because I’m a sensitive guy. I get hurt at times. Maybe as the elder partner I should have picked up the phone the next day and said, ‘hey, let’s go for breakfast together.’ Or maybe an ice-cream or go watch Sholay together.

Shivani Naik: Do you think you got your due adoration and endorsements or did the breakup cover all the great things you guys did?

Bhupathi: When we were growing up, we were two kids who loved playing, going from tournament to tournament trying to win. After we won the French Open, there was barely any celebration because we had to get on a plane and go to the Queen’s Club tournament the next day. Endorsements 20 years ago, somebody wanted to sign us for J Hampstead, we went, ‘Yayy’. Somebody wanted to sign us up for 7Up, we said, ‘Ok, wow!’ It was not a machine like it is today. It has taken over Neeraj Chopra’s life for the last two weeks… I think we were in an amazing space doing what we loved to do. We were playing at the highest level and winning. We were living our dream.

Shahid Judge: Mahesh, you once said that you two were Indians who succeeded in a white man’s sport. Given how the Europeans are dominating now, how much do you value your achievements today?

Bhupathi: I never took my tennis (wins) too seriously. Very early in my career, everyone was like, it’s only doubles. Relax, take it easy. But having re-lived this journey over the last 18 months, and watching footage of matches I had never seen before, seeing the articles and the kind of people we had to compete against — the quality 20 years ago from the Woodies to the Knowles-Nestor – I think it gave me perspective for the first time on what we actually achieved. And that gave me goosebumps. Now I’m proud and think that I deserve the attention I get. Earlier, I was very blasé about it, but now when Leander and I walk into a room and people sit up and want to take notice, I feel like they should.

Shivani Naik: Is this documentary a way of finding closure?

Paes: Yes, it’s a way of healing. Mahesh and myself, over the last 18 months, we have had a chance to laugh at a few of the things we’ve done before. We’ve also been able to address a few conversations that were left open or left unsaid. We’ve also found our peace and our friendship and our brotherhood. And that’s the fun part for me is that human connect.

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