Chennai: If you had told Mahesh Bhupathi six years ago that he would one day notch up all four Grand Slam events, he would probably have laughed heartily. But the former doubles world number one goes with new partner Joshua Eagle into this month’s Australian Open firmly believing he can become the first Indian to collect trophies from all four tennis majors.
Bhupathi, 28, was once a part of the circuit’s “Indian Express” with Leander Paes, with whom he has won three of his four men’s doubles Grand Slams.
“The Australian Open has become a special Slam for me now,” Bhupathi said during the season-opening Tata Open where he reached the semi-finals with Australian Todd Woodbridge on Saturday. “I’m going to try my best but even if the career slam doesn’t happen this year, it could next year. I’m confident.”
Bhupathi and Paes, who became the first pair in almost 50 years to reach the finals of all four Grand Slams in 1999 — when they won at the French Open and Wimbledon — have seen all the ups and downs professional sport has to offer.
There have been injuries, personal differences, ego clashes, splits, reconciliations, defeats and triumphs.
The duo embarked on their roller-coaster ride together when they realised they had an uncanny chemistry while representing India in a Davis Cup tie in 1996.
By then, Paes had already won an Olympics singles bronze at Atlanta and fancied big things for himself in singles.
They decided to play on the Challenger circuit together as an experiment but after winning half a dozen titles that year, they felt they were destined for greater things.
The team took the ATP circuit by storm in 1997, winning six doubles titles and added another six crowns to their collection the following year.
Then came 1999 and they became the hottest property on the doubles circuit. “Did you guys win, or is that a stupid question'” John McEnroe asked them at the US Open that year.
But, even while they were making history, there was trouble brewing.
“There were a lot of things that kept building up,” said Bhupathi, who has never publicly talked about the specifics of the problems, which the Indian media described as misunderstandings and ego clashes.
“We just reached a stage when we didn’t have the camaraderie and the confidence any more. If you look at the records, we were never really consistent. In ’99, we made all the four big finals but there were also a series of first-round losses.”
The split in early 2000 was as bitter as it was shocking for Indian fans. The two men made an attempt to patch things up before the Sydney Olympics and though they won the French Open again in 2001, the magic had clearly waned.
“We were struggling with each other,” Bhupathi said. “That’s why I decided I needed a change.” There was a second, quieter split early last year.
Bhupathi, who won the US Open title last year with Belarussian Max Mirnyi, has had a better run than Paes since their separation.
He is number four in the world in doubles and eyeing the top slot again.
“Looking back at the way things have turned out, I have no regrets about splitting. I was lucky to find in Max a partner who wanted to work hard and was hungry to win,” Bhupathi said.
But he regrets not taking up long-time world doubles number one Woodbridge’s partnership offer after the first split with Paes.
“Looking back, perhaps I do regret that a bit,” Bhupathi said. “Who knows, we may not have clicked at all. But we may also have won a lot of Slams. Todd is the best doubles player of this generation and we may have done well together.”
Bhupathi does not rule out a third partnership spell with Paes later in his career. “We played together in the Asian Games and won gold. We will play in Davis Cup but as far as the circuit is concerned I’m playing this year with Joshua and he with (Czech David) Rikl. That’s best for both of us right now.”
Bhupathi and Australian Eagle will be back together in Melbourne for the Australian Open, which starts next Monday.
Bhupathi, who has earned $2.7 million over the last six years and got married last year to model Shveta Jaishankar, smiles when he says age is catching up with him.
“I have to work a lot harder that I used to. I still give myself two more years at the top level. I might have to sit down and do a review again in 2004.”