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Love in the time of hate

Picture the two young lads with the fresh-faced model, laughing together in a lounge in a tennis club. The men are friends and the woman is their constant companion. One dates her, the other flirts with her.

All three may have to delve deep into their memories to remember those happy days, way back in 1999. The model with the drop-dead looks — Pantene girl Anupama Varma — now does bit roles in Hindi films. Last seen, she was cavorting in a hard-to-spot bikini with director Mahesh Manjrekar to a song called Chidiya chidiya (bird bird) in a film that’s long been forgotten. The two men, on the other hand, are seldom out of the news. They are India’s best — and warring — tennis players, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.

And what’s that got to do with the current brouhaha over the two players? Only that it underlines the beginning of the end.

“They were great friends. I met them through a common friend, a Mumbai-based sports company owner,” says Anupama Varma, adding that she dated Bhupathi for a while. So was she the cause of the split between the two? “I never knew that I could have that kind of an effect on Leander,” she laughs.

And Paes? The tennis ace, after all, rarely misses a passing volley. Did he ever make a pass at her? “No,” says Varma. “He was a thorough gentleman. What I remember is that Leander was a gentleman to me, and Mahesh was my best friend. ”

In tennis circles, where love usually translates into a zero, whispers are ricocheting on the origins of the great divide. In the world of international sports, stars change their beautiful partners — WAGs or Wives and Girlfriends — almost as often as their socks. In India, where sportsmen are placed at the High Altar, gossip mags have mostly focused on cricketers and their arm candy.

The grapevine, for instance, has it that bowler Zaheer Khan is in a relationship with actress Isha Sharwani. Harbhajan Singh is said to be close to starlet Geeta Basra. Yuvraj Singh has had a bevy of girlfriends. Gossip columns have linked both Yuvraj and M.S. Dhoni to Deepika Padukone — all at the same time. Even Sreesanth has been seeing Tamil actress Lakshmi Rai.

In the exalted circles of Indian tennis, however, players’ love lives seldom spill out into the mainstream. But that’s changing too. Before Paes tied the knot with former model Rhea Pillai — who was earlier married to the actor Sanjay Dutt — he and actress Mahima Chaudhary figured as a hot item in newspaper columns. And when Bhupathi married actress and former Miss Universe Lara Dutta last year, his ex-wife Shveta Jaishankar — another former beauty queen and model — had a few things to say about it.

“I don’t know when he met Lara Dutta but all I can say is that… their relationship did start while we were married. And she is not the first one he was distracted by,” Jaishankar told Savvy magazine in 2010. “Mahesh seems like he is in a frenzy, collecting trophies on and off the court and Lara probably fits in with his current plans. But again, if he did what he did to me, a woman he loved, he is capable of doing this to Lara as well… My message to men like him is: don’t sign up for a club whose rules you don’t fundamentally believe in.”

Actress Chaudhary — who figures in two much-watched Internet clips called Saree Slips and Hot Kiss — refuses to comment on Paes, calling it “a very personal matter”. But a source recalls that when Paes was undergoing treatment for a parasitic infection in his brain at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando in 2003, she was by his side at all times. “Bhupathi was also there and spent time with Paes,” the source adds.

But Mahima had felt the “cold” vibes between the two players much earlier. “They were together in the court at Wimbledon in 1999 but were not on talking terms,” the source says.

HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW: Anupama Varma, the model whom both players were close to, then and now

Well before Mahima, of course, there was Anisa, former tennis player Jaidip Mukerjea’s daughter. In a chat on Rediff in 1996, Paes — then 23 — said, “I do have a girlfriend. Anisa and myself have known each other since we were five years old.” Years later, at a reception for Mahesh and Lara Dutta, one of Mahesh’s close associates was present when Paes introduced Anisa to wife Rhea. “Ah, so you are Anisa,” said Pillai.

Text messages and emailed questions to Paes and Bhupathi asking about their romantic liaisons have elicited no answers. All that Bhupathi seeks to stress — in answer to a question about the possibility of the two players getting back together — is that there is little chance of a rapprochement. “No. The ship has sailed,” he says in a texted message. In an interview with Anandabazar Patrika from London on Saturday, he says his “love-hate relationship” with Paes continues. “I have no issues talking to him. It’s Leander who doesn’t talk,” he says.

It’s difficult to think that these are the same men who, after one of their many spectacular wins, pierced their ears and bought studs for each other. But then, as a former player close to the two puts it, they also shared a fondness for women — which ended up pulling them apart. “Glamour, sex, celebrity girlfriends are now all a part of games such as tennis. So the chances of such disputes happening rise further,” he says.

For tennis lovers — and those hoping for a couple of medals at the Olympics — these are bad times. After all, 39-year-old Paes, who ranks seventh in the world as a doubles player, and 38-year-old Bhupathi, who ranks 15th, have been greatly successful as a team. Hopes have been high ever since 1995, when they played together for the Davis Cup for the first time — and won.

They won Grand Slam doubles titles at the French Open in 1999 and 2001 and Wimbledon in 1999 and were India’s flag-bearers at four Olympic Games. But the seeds of discord had been sown even when they were partners. “Last year we had one of our best years on the court and one of our worst years off it,” Paes told STAR News (now ABP News) in 2000.

That was the beginning of the “Cold War”, says a close associate of Paes. “They were great friends from 1996. They used to live together, live off each other, and do everything that young friends would do,” he says. “But then they didn’t talk to each other, they stayed in separate apartments. Nobody knows why — it’s something between them.”

Clearly, women are only a part of the problem. Bhupathi’s camp says he got a raw deal in sponsorships when he was being managed by Paes’s father, Vece Paes (who didn’t respond to questions on the issue). Paes’s supporters, on the other hand, think that Bhupathi wields control over younger players trained at the Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academy in Bangalore and promoted by his company. The academy, started in 1995, has trained both Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna.

Former tennis player Akhtar Ali, who has coached both Paes and Bhupathi, admits that the split is an outcome of a host of factors, including clashing egos. “Sports is no longer just sports. It’s more of fame, glamour, money and a career for today’s youth. Leander was getting more money, fame and sponsorship, while Bhupati, his partner, was not getting so much of it. It became easier for people to influence Bhupati then to come out of Leander’s shadow,” Ali says.

Paes’s close associate — who like most relatives and associates of the two players refuses to be named — holds that at the root of the problem was ego. “They were both at the top of their game, and then the ego comes in as to who’s number one and who’s number two. Leander is a star in his own right, and even in the sponsorship situation, Leander was drawing in more than Mahesh. And so jealousy could have been a motivating factor.”

Bhupathi’s father, Krishna Bhupathi, pooh-poohs the suggestion. “There is no ego issue here. There is no competition between the two either. Both are world class players and both have been playing with different partners for long.”

What’s clear, though, is that the two players’ fight has dragged other players into it with its tentacles. Reports that Mirza is not keen to play with Paes because he called her a fatty (to her former doubles partner Elena Vesnina) could not be confirmed. But tennis insiders say the alleged remark gave another vicious turn to the ongoing drama.

Bhupathi’s former coach — Enrico Piperno — has also been drawn into it. In 2000, Senior Paes announced that the two were breaking up because of lack of trust, suggesting that Piperno was the reason they couldn’t play together.

“Paes made phantom allegations against me,” counters Piperno, India’s Fed Cup coach. “I was with Bhupathi for four and a half months in New York when he was recovering from his shoulder injury. Bhupathi was just getting ready to play once again when he was asked to drop me as his coach,” he says, adding that he continued to be with Bhupathi till 2003.

The drama will possibly ring in its last act at the Olympics. The All India Tennis Association (AITA) has stated that Bhupathi and Bopanna will play in the men’s doubles and Paes and Mirza in the mixed doubles. “They shouldn’t have created this drama at the fag-end of their career,” rues S.P. Mishra, AITA selection committee member and Davis Cup captain.

Some believe this is the only possible outcome of what’s been a long battle. “Now, even if they come together, they will not be able to perform,” reasons Krishna Bhupathi. “Whenever they have come back together, they haven’t done well. They have returned empty-handed in the four attempts from 2004 to 2008 including twice in the Olympics. After such disastrous performances together, why should they play together,” he asks.

It may be the only way out for the two players. But it’s just not tennis.

Additional reporting by Shabina Akhtar and Abimanyu Nagarajan in Calcutta, Varuna Verma in Bangalore and V. Kumara Swamy in New Delhi