| Sania Mirza with her silver medal on Wednesday
Doha: The packed stands at the Centre Court of the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex on Wednesday watched with stunning disbelief as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi scripted yet another remarkable comeback story to win their second back-to-back Asian Games doubles gold.
Paes, who won his first Asiad doubles gold with Gaurav Natekar in Hiroshima (1994), reached a new high a couple of hours later when he partnered Sania Mirza to win the mixed doubles title. They defeated Satoshi Iwabuchi and Akiko Morigami of Japan 7-5, 5-7, 6-2. In 12 years, Paes has now won four gold medals for India in the Asian Games. Thus he has joined the elite list of P.T. Usha, Milkha Singh and Jaspal Rana, who have four Asian gold each.
After the crowd favourite Sania Mirza lost the women’s singles final to China’s Jie Zheng 4-6, 6-1, 1-6 in the day’s first match, the Indian duo looked in deep trouble against Thai twins Sanchal Ratiwatana and Sonchat Ratiwatana. They lost the first set 5-7 and were trailing the second at 5-6 and 0-40 when many Indian fans started leaving the stadium.
The drama, however, began at that point of time. While Bhupathi suddenly started serving with great precision, Paes displayed some tremendous net play. Three continuous winners from Paes had the Thai duo completely rattled and they were forced to put their hands up. The Indian pair saved seven match points in a row to wrap up the set.
For a moment, one felt Paes and Bhupathi had regained their form that they had five years ago when they were the word beaters. In the tie-breaker, the Thai pair had little chance to challenge the fury of the Indians, who were firing all cylinders.
Paes and Bhupathi were in crushing mood when rain intervened for about half an hour. The rain relented, but not the Indian pair. They started from where they ended in the second set. Perhaps, the unexpected defeat in the first set got them to play in a furious pace.
In the final set everything seemed right for the ‘Indian Express’ duo. Some of the forehand shots and net punches from Paes were simply breathtaking. Keeping the rhythm with him in the perfect manner was Bhupathi. One couldn’t believe that the two refused to play with each other only a week ago.
The end was like the old days. They clasped hands after winning each point, went for hi-five after every game and then jumped in the air in sheer joy and embraced each other after Paes served out for the match. The scoreline 5-7, 7-6 (9), 6-3 in two hours 44 minutes would never be able to tell the real story.
In the women’s singles final, Sania had all the ingredients of a champion, but she didn’t play like one.
In the final against Jie Zheng, Sania hogged all the pre-match limelight. The fans thronged at the gate to watch her, the camera crew of the official television network tracked her throughout and when she finally appeared at the court, the loudest cheers were reserved for her.
The gold medal, however, was reserved for the Chinese girl. Pitted against a rival, who enjoyed the backing of the packed stands, Jie Zheng displayed brilliant tactical sense to beat Sania in 109 minutes.
Later, Sania said she was tired of playing tennis for the last 10 days. In reality, it was her erratic nature of play that cost her the match than the fatigue. Unlike in the earlier rounds, Sania was hitting too many wide shots. At the same time, she committed a series of unforced errors in all the three sets to make things easier for the Chinese girl.
Her worst came in the third set. She became even more erratic and was broken in the very first game. In the fourth, she had a chance to break Jie Zheng, but threw it away by hitting out an easy winner. She then threw down her racket for the second time in the match. It promptly earned her a warning from the umpires.