Date: July 2, 2022
2012 was a watershed year in Indian sport. Tennis and cricket in India seemed to be besotted with their aging stars, refusing to believe that all good things had to come to an end. The Indian cricket team had lost 8 tests on the trot, one of its most prolific and respected cricketer’s, Rahul Dravid, had announced his retirement and one of the cricket's most revered figures, Sachin Tendulkar, would bid adieu to the game a year later, (another legend, VVS Laxman had also retired a few months earlier) leaving a billion and a half people inconsolable.
The UPA government was on its last legs and the US was slowly but steadily withdrawing troops from its misadventures in Iraq. Everywhere one looked, it seemed the old was reluctantly making way for the future. Right in the midst of all of this, two of India’s aging tennis stars were fighting a war of their own.
Indian hockey was yet to make a comeback into people’s hearts and the purses of sponsors. The London Olympics was for all purposes, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi’s last shot at immortality. One would have to really go back in time, 1996 to be precise, when the embers of hope were planted with Leander Paes winning the bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics. And then travel to 1999 when it seemed the world was theirs for the taking, rising almost a billion hopes (India wasn’t a billion strong by then). Wins at the French Open and Wimbeldon, reaching the finals of all the major tournaments and the no.1 ranking painted a picture of invincibility. The future looked impossibly bright.
If the script went according to expectation, they would have carried on the legacy of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, ambassadors of scintillating double’s play. But instead of sitting back and watching tennis volleys, the public were subject to verbal volleys, none of which, unfortunately, win medals, instil national pride or do any good for the game. It was Indian sports contribution to reality television, which eventually meandered into a never ending soap opera.
Great players aren’t just eulogized by their records but also by their ability to inspire generations that come after them. Toward the end of their career, the Paes-Bhupathi express veered off from being an aspirational tale to a cautionary one. It wasn’t as if their game had lost fire, nor was it felt that their presence was impeding younger legs, none of who had made a significant mark in the sport at that point. It was that their partnership would be remembered for all that it could have been, but never was.
Burying egos and personal differences in sport as well in life is an onerous task. If it is deemed reasonable to quit a job because of intolerable co-workers or bosses, putting aside irreconcilable personal differences to play for the country requires an ungainly super heroic ability. And when it came to the test, it became quite obvious that this ability wasn’t possessed by either Paes or Bhupathi.
And thus they set foot on the Olympic court, to do battle with each other. Instead of going down in a blaze of glory, tasting the saltiness of happy tears standing on the podium with medals wresting lightly on their necks as the Indian national anthem played, they went down in a war of words.
And to think, in 1999, the future had looked impossibly bright.
P.S. Leander Paes now coaches the Indian tennis team. Mahesh Bhupathi runs his own sport management company and has acted in three movies. His next movie, a biopic on his life, is set to hit theatres next week. Sources report that the movie doesn’t portray Leander Paes in a very endearing light. Neither Leander Paes or Mahesh Bhupathi could be reached for comment at the time of filing this piece.