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Flexible Bhupathi proves a point

Calcutta, Sept. 7: He was right, we were wrong.

Slammed by the media for derailing the Indian Express last March, accused of ruining both his and Leander Paes’ doubles career, Mahesh Bhupathi took exactly six months to turn the wheel a full circle.

In many ways, Friday’s US Open conquest with Max Mirnyi was the 28-year-old Bangalorean’s most memorable of his seven Grand Slam titles.

Not only because he showed he can climb the peak sans Paes. More significantly, Bhupathi proved that the decision to split with his long-time partner was the right career move. Mentally split apart by mutual mistrust since 1999, the two gifted doubles exponents took a four-month separation (in 2000) in stride and hung on to each other despite not being on talking terms.

It was a painful existence for the once great buddies as they laboured week after week in search of that elusive chemistry that fetched them back-to-back Grand Slam crowns in the summer of ’99.

They did manage to lift the French Open trophy in 2001, but even that failed to re-ignite their friendship. As the performance graph dipped alarmingly after a bright start to 2002, Bhupathi cut short the claustrophobic relationship that was pushing both men further apart, digging holes in their pockets and harming the rankings.

Not everyone, though, was convinced that the way out was a ‘divorce’. By his own admission, Mahesh played his best tennis with Paes — the problems notwithstanding. How would they adjust with different partners on a long-term basis, asked the fans.

As Paes struggled to find the right partner, Bhupathi took some time to settle down with Mirnyi as the tall Belarussian didn’t always focus solely on doubles. But never did he doubt his own conviction. “We may not have got the right results straightaway, but we did play some good doubles from the very beginning of our association,” said Bhupathi. “Then we made some semis and lost in some finals, but I knew a title was just a matter of time.”

Even when Mirnyi got busy with his singles pursuits, Bhupathi found able allies who gelled with him in next to no time. Before breaking the title drought with Mirnyi, Bhupathi won titles this year with Americans Jan Michael Gambill and Mike Bryan. And, of course, with Paes — twice.

“The fact that he has won championships with four different partners this season is testimony to his doubles skills,” quipped Mahesh’s dad C.G.K. Bhupathi. “Equally significant is the fact that he bagged a Grand Slam with somebody with whom he’s been playing for just six months.”

Consider his three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles with three partners (Rika Hiraki, Ai Sugiyama and Elena Likhovtseva), and Bhupathi’s flexibility is clearly established.

“As a parent, I was most thrilled to see him so relaxed and happy on court… after all the tension and undercurrents over the last two-three years, this is the most satisfying thing,” observed senior Bhupathi. He didn’t want go into any debate over who was better: his son or Paes. On the contrary, Bhupathi senior wished that Paes got into the winning groove soon.

For the moment, however, one argument seems settled. Paes may be the best Davis Cupper India has seen, but as far as a doubles player is concerned, he is fast getting relegated to the ‘runner-up’ slot.

BHUPATHI’S GRAND SLAM KITTY

l 1997 French Open mixed doubles — with Rika Hiraki (Japan)

l1999 French Open men’s doubles — with Leander Paes

l1999 Wimbledon men’s doubles — with Paes

l 2000 US Open mixed doubles — with Ai Sugiyama (Japan)

l 2001 French Open men’s doubles — with Paes

l 2002 Wimbledon mixed doubles — with Elena Likhovtseva (Rus)

l 2002 US Open men’s doubles — with Max Mirnyi (Belarus).

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