Saket Myneni had crunched the forehand volley very hard. He wasn’t too far from the net. Neither was Leander Paes. The ball blurred towards his left foot and there wasn’t any time for any thought to pop up but not many do reflex better than Leander. Catch it on a replay today if you can: a shoe-lace volley is needed, the ball is rushing towards the left foot when the right hand moves at a manic speed.
The racquet changes into a backhand position, and somehow, he chips the ball back over the net. Myneni, the man who had seen Leander take his doubles spot in Davis Cup, whips it back almost at the same spot. Whack. Another shoe-lace pick-up from Leander and this one is loaded with more power, and the ball rushes back at an awkward angle and Myneni is no Leander. Point won, match begins to turn.
That play had come at 30-30 on Myneni’s serve in the second game of the second set. Mahesh Bhupathi should have been rusty after a lengthy lay-off but somehow he wasn’t and had roused himself to deliver key interventions at net and from baseline to help win the first set 6-1 in just 30 minutes.
If that point had gone the other way, perhaps they would have run with the momentum. Instead, Bhupathi had to huddle with Myneni to sweat over the preparation for the next point. The crowd, though barely half-full, is roaring all around them for they had seen Leander wake up after that first set. The chair umpire leans into the mike: “Time violation warning to Bhupathi and Myneni”.
Bhupathi doesn’t turn but continues to chat intently. Myneni serves but after a short rally sinks one into the net. Lee roars and chest bumps his 99th partner Raven Klassen from South Africa. Meanwhile, an enraged Bhupati storms to the umpire to vent about that warning. Later he would say that the referee “wanted to be a hero. The crowd had just got into the game, the match was going so good, but he had to intervene rather unnecessarily. I told him it was unnecessary.”
That game, that chat, and above all those delicious shoe-lace volleys turned the match around. Sensing his moment, Leander began to get the crowd going his way — “this is home to me, I lived five years here as a boy” — orchestrating waves and screams. And it wasn’t a surprise when he and his partner ran away with the second set 6-1.
The match headed into the 10-point tiebreaker where Bhupathi forced an error on Klaasen’s back hand to lead 2-1. He had two serves now and a chance to widen the gulf but slipped up with a double fault. The next game-turning moment came at 3-3. Leander is at the net and Bhupathi is lunging to the left for a return. “As soon as I saw him going there, I knew his backhand would be in the middle,” Leander said later.
All those years of playing together and all that. And so Leander zips to his right almost before the ball leaves Bhupathi’s racquet to whip a forehand cross for a winner. If he hadn’t moved across for the intervention his partner would have been under pressure to come up with a good shot. And who knows, he might have fluffed.
The game ended with a double fault from Myneni, who had served really well thus far, and Leander and Klassen celebrated the 10-7 tiebreak scoreline and a place in the semi-finals with another chest-bump. Leander broke free, walked up to the net, ruffled Bhupathi’s hair and neck and walked away with a smile.