There’s a picture imprinted in the mind of Indian tennis fans. Leander Paes is in front, standing close to the net, crouching, as he waits to volley home another loose ball, while Mahesh Bhupathi lurks behind, at the baseline, loading up to smash across court another one of his booming serves.
When you think about it, the picture is a representation of their contrasting personalities. Paes is the flamboyant one, the front man who thrives under the attention, and the one who dominates the conversation. Then there’s Bhupathi, in the back, who doesn’t mind being in the shadow, and speaks only when spoken to – that too with the least number of words possible.
As captain of the Davis Cup team, ahead of his first ever tie in that capacity, Bhupathi made the bold decision of dropping Paes on form for the first time in the veteran’s 27 year career. It was a move that drew the inevitable ire. Paes took a stand, criticising Bhupathi’s decision of picking India’s No 1 ranked doubles player Rohan Bopanna ahead of him and left the tie mid-way. Bhupathi, meanwhile, in the post-tie press conference, spouted all the anger in his biggest outburst against his former partner.
The Lee-Hesh team had once dominated the tennis world, making the No 1 doubles spot their own 18 years ago. Animosity grew between the two, but it was an ill-timed shoulder injury to Bhupathi in 2001 that eventually sparked the split, the captain lets on. “Having the shoulder injury when we were the No 1 team in the world was probably the wrong time, because everything was on the upswing and we were at the top of tennis,” Bhupathi said, hinting at the reasons in an interview prior to announcing the team for the Bangalore tie.
Paes has always seen surgery as the last resort for professional athletes. But Bhupathi had no choice. “Leander was my first partner on tour, and the split was a defining moment in my career. I was younger, so I was able to recover quickly. But at the same time, that was the catalyst in causing the split in the partnership,” he said.
Bhupathi’s reputation precedes him. He is known as an interviewer’s nightmare. He lets out little to no emotion, occasionally exuding contempt. Questions can be answered in a single word. Sometimes, with none at all. He walks into the room with no expression on his face. He strides calmly to the far end of the press room. He does however, sport a new business attire: slippers, white shorts, a T-shirt. There’s also the top half of a track suit with the word ‘India’ emblazoned on the back, and ‘Hesh’ on the front. A white baseball cap covers his head.
Such was the overarching fog surrounding prevailing status of ‘Lee-Hesh’ at any given time, that Mahesh Bhupathi barely ever answered questions that focussed on his life – his pet peeves, his ardent likes, his titles on court, his heartbreaking defeats. The shadow of Paes would stalk every formal or casual interaction with a man one year his junior.
Little would be known about him – like how he was a massive Govinda fan or mouthed Bachchan lines – little mattered even as long as the Paes pot was kept stirring. But finding himself in the foreground of a tennis court – as captain of the Indian Davis Cup team, this seemed to be the right time to delineate Indian tennis’ two prominent stories. It would all implode as the week went along and Paes huffed and Bhupathi puffed. But the Bangalorean would offer a tiny window into his life – the one that didn’t need clearing of the air with WhatsApp backups.
He’s a busy man, with a penchant for silence. But he’s here, at the KSLTA Stadium just days before the Davis Cup tie, for the scheduled interview. There is no time for niceties, and he wants to start straight away. As the questions roll on, he cannot be bothered to hide his attempts to snatch a glimpse at his wristwatch. In a few minutes, Bhupathi has to attend his first ever Captains Meeting. He does not want to be late.
At 42, Bhupathi has entered a new juncture in his long and illustrious tennis career. Yet not one that he is too unfamiliar with.
“To be involved with Davis Cup, and be the captain of India is a privilege for any person,” he says, without much expression. “I think it is a very unique situation that I have played with, or against, all the players in the team, including the coach. There is an automatic camaraderie and respect. I have played the sport at the highest level so when I give my two cents, there is merit to it.” This is before the latest fireworks set off.
Bhupathi was in fact one of the trailblazers for Indian tennis. Twenty years ago, this June, Bhupathi broke a glass ceiling to become the first ever Indian to win a Grand Slam. For all his reputation of being a media recluse, mention the mixed doubles event at the 1997 French Open, and he opens up. A smile creeps up on his face, as the holder of 12 Grand Slam titles (four in men’s singles and eight in mixed doubles) gets nostalgic about how it all began.
He remembers looking for a partner 20 minutes before the sign-in deadline at Roland Garros. Until he bumped into Rika Hiraki. “I was pretty new on tour so not many people knew me. Hiraki asked my coach what I looked like,” he recalls, smiling.
The pair lost their first ever set playing together, but bounced back to win the match. But there was plenty he needed to adjust to before he could go on to win the title. “I remember coming off court and my coach, Enrico Piperno at the time, told me ‘you are the worst mixed doubles player I’ve ever seen. You keep hitting the ball to the guy. That’s not the way mixed doubles is played!” Finally, he chances a laugh.
The tournament went from the pair saving three match points in the first match, to winning the title. “We didn’t talk much. It was the first mixed doubles match of my life. It went from us being three match points down in the first round to winning the title, and things changed from there. It was pretty surreal,” he says, smiling.
Bhupathi first started playing tennis when he was merely three. The inspiration however, to take up the sport professionally came when his father took him to watch a Vijay Amritraj match at Wimbledon. “It was pretty cool because there were so many Indians supporting him and watching him play,” he recalls.
But as an upcoming player, Bhupathi found his heroes in Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker – all serve and volley masters – and Bjorn Borg. “The aggression,” he says, is what captured his imagination. But rather than going down the same path as his idols, he updated his game to the trends of the day. In India, most players were patrons of touch play – an eye-pleasing concoction of charm, elegance and finesse.
Bhupathi broke that mould. He came in with the new style that was threatening to take over the sport. There was the booming serve from the man who stands at 6-foot-1. The ground strokes were clean, struck with venom and pace. He was the first big power player to emerge from the country.
“I was a part of the tennis revolution phase, from finesse to power. It was unique for Indian tennis, but my game did not revolve around putting 40 balls in court every point. I was hitting the ball and coming in. Today if you are not playing that brand, it is very hard,” he says.
By the end of 2001, he had effectively turned into a doubles specialist. It was a conscious decision to move into the team game rather than slug it out in the singles – his highest ever singles ranking was 217.
“I didn’t give myself a decent shot in singles. And that was by choice. My doubles ranking was very quickly in the top 10 and I made the choice to go after doubles. I don’t regret it at all. No one would have remembered me if I was ranked 40 in the singles, but they would if I had 12 Grand Slams.”
The move paid off as he embarked on a journey that soon took him to the summit of the doubles game, ending his career with a remarkable 52 ATP titles – along with the 12 majors. But there is still a few pieces of silverware missing from the trophy cabinet. “Davis Cup title, Olympic medal…” he lists. “But when I started off my career, I was excited just to be at Wimbledon.”
Incidentally, he makes no mention of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna. Of the three Grand Slam champions India has produced, Paes, Bhupathi and Sania Mirza, he is the only one not to receive the government honour. But he has never complained about it.
“Hum jahan khade ho jaate hai, line wahi se shuru hoti hai.”
Bhupathi’s voice deepens just a notch, as he attempts to match Amitabh Bachchan’s delivery of the famed dialogue from Kaalia. It’s almost with practised bravado with which he recites the line, without delay, when asked what his favourite Bollywood line is. He remembers being a fan of Hindi cinema from his early childhood, which he spent in the Middle East. “My dad lived in the Gulf, there the only form of entertainment is Bollywood movies,” he says. “I think it still is.”
He asserts that the one habit that makes him feel ‘truly Indian’ is his choice in music – Bollywood. Life on the professional tour opened him up to countless forms of art and music as he travelled the globe to notch up the wins and accolades that decorated his career. Yet in all that, he’s remained loyal to Bollywood. And Govinda.
An avid fan of the veteran actor, Bhupathi asserts the best part of the 90s decade was ‘Govinda.’ Inspired by the man who made famous the tagline ‘No. 1,’ with films like Coolie No. 1, Hero No. 1 and Jodi No. 1, Bhupathi knew exactly what his email address would be once the internet boom kicked in: Mahesh No. 1. “I still do (have that email),” he says, matter-of-factly. “I liked his sense of humour. And the whole package, David Dhawan and Govinda. It used to make me laugh.”
As luck would have it, he would go on to marry a Bollywood star, Lara Dutta.
Amongst sports journalists, Bhupathi’s reputation of being an interview-introvert had long been established. Through his wife, another set of reporters sought a few ‘quotable quotes’ from the tall tennis legend who rarely gave any.
“The questions are different, but I think all are very sensitive to the fact that they know my personality, so they don’t push me in the wrong direction,” he says, hinting that his reputation has crossed all genres of journalism. “Most of the time, I’m asked what’s my wife’s favourite movie or who is her favourite co-star. My standard response is that ‘you should ask her.’”
One question he claims to have not been asked is what he thinks of his wife as an actor. He regales: “It’s a difficult industry to come in when you don’t have a legacy behind you. But obviously her winning the Miss Universe helped her get the foot in door and she did well. She’s done 20-25 movies, so I think she’s pretty successful.”
Like any famous personalty, in sport or cinema, Bhupathi too has had his fair share of rumours to deal. He stares, stone-faced again, when asked to reveal the wildest piece of gossip he’s ever heard about himself. “That Leander and I are gay.”
The tennis tour has taken him around the world, during his playing days and even after he started focusing more on the business side of the sport. His own glittering career brought him fame and fortune. But despite that, he likes to maintain a low profile.
A galaxy of stars available to be pals with on the tennis tour, especially being a multiple time Grand Slam winner himself, and Bhupathi shares fond friendships with his lesser known peers. South African Robbie Koenig and Donald Johnson top his list.
Of course, he’s held strong bonds with the likes of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna as well, long before they became the big names they are today. It’s a set of relationships that stem from the fact that he’s done his bit for upcoming players, guiding them with advice and even supporting them financially. Through his player management firm, he handled Mirza before partnering her to the mixed doubles titles at the 2009 Australian Open and 2012 French Open.
More is expected of him, but he doesn’t want to get hopes too high. Like legendary badminton coach Pulella Gopichand has churned out two consecutive Olympic medallist, Bhupathi asserts that he isn’t promising the development of a similar path-breaking stream in Indian tennis.
“Gopi has done an amazing job, making us a powerhouse in the sport today. It will be great for that happen to tennis in India in my lifetime. But that’s a long shot. For me, to be able to create a couple of top-100 players will be great,” he says.
As a businessman, he has had his ups and downs too. Over a decade ago, he brought an ATP tournament to Mumbai on a three-year contract – it closed out in two. The International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), that came up in 2013 and has that brought the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams to India, too is dwindling. But his newest venture as Davis Cup captain is one that makes him seem more at home. The protagonists in the plot are all familiar to him, especially his former partner. And that old picture comes back into mind, Paes in the front with Bhupathi contributing from the back.
He’s moved up front now, becoming the man in charge, as skipper of the team. Soon, it’s time for his first ever ‘Captains meeting.”
He’s back on his feet again, and his pace quickens as he heads to the conference room. The game face is back on. The expression on his face is a bit more recognisable now – there is no expression.