| Paes and Bhupathi will look to outgun each other in their quest for a semi-final berth at their favourite French Open arena
Calcutta: Visualise two Indians going hammer and tongs at each other in a Grand Slam singles quarter final. The mind will draw a blank, there are no images in the memory bank. It did not happen even when Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan were at their peak. Neither is it likely to materialise in the foreseeable future.
But the next best thing — two Indians across the net on a doubles court — is no longer a fantasy, thanks to the brilliance of partners-turned-rivals Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. It was at January’s Australian Open that Paes and Martina Navratilova accounted for Bhupathi and Iroda Tulyaganova en route to their epochal triumph.
But come Tuesday, Paes and Bhupathi will take their self-created rivalry to new heights when they confront each other at Stade Roland Garros with a semi-final berth at stake. And, to think, that these two gentlemen together lifted the French Open doubles trophy twice — in 1999 and 2001! It’s such ironies that make life such a fascinating spectacle.
The Bhupathi-Max Mirnyi versus Paes-David Rikl quarter final should be no less fascinating. Bhupathi and Mirnyi set Europe’s claycourts on fire the last two months. Paes-Rikl had a roaring hardcourt season before stumbling on clay only to recover in the nick of time.
In four starts since their reunion this April, Bhupathi and Mirnyi have won two tournaments (Estoril and Monte Carlo), been runners-up in Hamburg and semi-finalists once (Rome). Add their three victories in Paris, and the second seeds have an envious 16-2 win-loss record on clay.
“We are pretty much the form team on clay this year… we are eager to go out there and stamp our superiority by winning the biggest title,” announced Bhupathi while interacting with The Telegraph.
The first Indian to claim a Grand Slam crown of any hue, Bhupathi refused to label the upcoming match as anything special.
“I’ve been in 15 or more Grand Slam quarter finals, so this is nothing new or different. I know how to handle a match like this.”
But won’t it be an emotional occasion playing against a man with whom he has won 22 tournaments including three majors' “Emotions can’t play any role now… we have been playing separately for over a year now and have already clashed with each other. We’ll do so again and as many times as we need to. Period.”
Any predictions about the result' “All I can say is Max and I have the ability and firepower to beat any team. We want to win many more Slams and we believe we can do it.”
Clearly, confidence is not in short supply for Bhupathi these days.
Paes, on the other hand, presents a mature front. “We are definitely the underdogs. They (Bhupathi-Mirnyi) have a lot going for them,” was how the senior pro summed it up.
But he didn’t miss mentioning the huge career-advantage he enjoys over Bhupathi. “I’ve won all but one of our clashes... I’ll be trying to build on that record,” said Paes whose only loss to Bhupathi was in the Hamburg Masters Series doubles event last year.
Paes ended on the right side of the scoreline against Bhupathi on seven occasions — thrice each in singles and men’s doubles, once in mixed.
“It will be a tough match... Whoever wins it will have a good chance to go all the way,” Paes observed.
Form definitely points to a Bhupathi-Mirnyi victory. But if the mental-factor is taken into calculation, Paes should have the edge.
It’s that superior mental strength which Paes will try to impose on Bhupathi in the battle royal on Tuesday.