<img width=”300″ height=”360″ border=0 alt=”” align=”left” hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″ src=/directory/getdata.asp?about_id=c57893ce96275dab8c5f2e49e8a1b184-2>Indian tennis has matured steadily over the past few decades and while some would say that India has produced precious few pros, the current Indian doubles team has been making swift strides in the game, almost creeping up on tennis enthusiasts with their success. Currently making up the world’s No. 4 doubles team, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, “the Indian Express,” have served up an impressive volley. Champions at the 2001 French Open, they made the doubles final of all four Grand Slams in 1999 (a first in 47 years), winning the Wimbledon and the French Open. Together they have won over $4 million in prize money and own 43 doubles titles. The duo was recently awarded one of India’s highest civilian honors, the Padmashri.
On the personal front as well, the two have scored with both having recently announced engagements. To the thrill of many, Paes is rumored to be tying the knot in early 2002 with Bollywood actress Mahima Choudhary.
And in February, these athletes will make their Bay Area debut at the prestigious 2002 Siebel Open in San Jose. In its 114th year, the Siebel Open is the second oldest men’s professional tennis tournament in the U.S. “The Indian Express” will join the legendary Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, and 27 other world class players. Considered one of the world’s most exciting doubles team, Bhupathi and Paes will kick off Super Tuesday night, Feb. 26, preceded by Andre Agassi.
In a media conference call on Dec. 14, Mahesh Bhupathi spoke on various aspects of his game, his winning partnership with Leander Paes and the state of Indian tennis. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
VENTURING INTO TENNIS
I started playing at the age of 3 and it wasn’t much of an option with me, because my father played a lot of tennis. He was among the top five tennis players in India. His dream was always to make his son or daughter a tennis player. I’ve been literally thrust into the sport.
It was a lot of hard work, but I have no regrets. I am enjoying the success and fame now. I really owe a lot to my father and my family and the sacrifices they willingly made. They were among the few that sacrificed education in the beginning to put me in tennis. This paid off in the long run. I did not have to leave education completely to concentrate on tennis. Obviously, one had to finish high school in order to get into college. I got out of school when I was in ninth grade and did the rest of it through private tutors.
HOPES AND FEARS
I have no fears, really. Both Leander and I have heard a lot of good things about the Bay Area. We are aware that there is a very large Indian population, and we’re looking forward to playing there. We thrive on support when we play, and the bigger the crowd, the better we play. We’re looking forward to it.
We enjoy the kind of doubles we play, and as long as we are healthy it’s pretty tough to beat us. In this debut in San Jose, we plan to put on some good exhibition of doubles.
This question we haven’t really answered. We’ve been asked millions of times but have chosen not to say anything for personal reasons and we plan to keep it that way. Getting back together was in a sense, a no-brainer. Both of us had our own problems. I had shoulder surgery and Leander had a bad wrist. We experimented with different partners and had a little success, but not the kind we were having together. Playing together, playing for India is a different feeling. So everything just kind of fell into place.
RAPPORT WITH PAES
Leander and I share a special rapport on the court that is kind of hard to duplicate. We have been playing together since we were juniors, so that chemistry shows. The comfort level and understanding we had on court was never lost. We won the Japan Open in Tokyo, literally five weeks after starting back together. Though its been an up and down year, we won the Grand Slam, the Super Nine and other finals at the end of the year, so over all, we are pretty happy with the way we have been able to get back into the groove of things. One of our goals now is to finish at No. 1. We plan to achieve that by focusing on being a doubles team and preparing accordingly. We are concentrating on staying healthy and trying to win the big matches.
The best thing about Leander is that he always gives 100 percent on the tennis court—no matter what the situation is off the court. I guess the worst thing about him is probably the fact that he doesn’t pick up his phone when he needs to!
We travel together when we’re playing a tournament. So all our practice sessions are together. On a regular day I practice twice, morning and evening, three hours total and a couple hours of off-court work in the gym, running, and chest splits.
NOT A SINGLES PLAYER
Speaking for myself, I could say there are a couple of reasons why I’ve not made much headway in singles. Coming out of college, my doubles ranking picked up very fast compared to my singles ranking. I was ranked No. 1 in college in my second year, and it was a Catch-22 scenario—deciding if I wanted to go for the good life or sacrifice and go back to the low levels to play singles. When I was about 200th in the world, I had surgery on my shoulder and that took a year and a half to heal. I’ve only just started feeling better again and have actually been playing a little singles for the last one month.
TENNIS IN INDIA
The lack of attention to physical fitness has impacted tennis in India. You can’t blame the players because most of them don’t know any better and lack the exposure. They are unaware of the kind of training it takes to compete with the best in Europe and in America. We have tried our best to rectify the situation. Leander has got a training academy in Calcutta, and we’ve got a couple coaches in Bangalore who go to London and train with professionals to bring back their system of training to India.
There are several factors why India has not produced more world champions. First, there is an unwillingness among Indian parents to put their kids into any sport at a young age. The Indian mentality is to focus on education in the beginning. Secondly, there is a lack of infrastructure.
Every once in a while, we get lucky where a Krishnan or a Paes comes out of the blue because of their special talent. But we really don’t have a system in place where we’re building 20, 30, players a year and hoping that a world champion emerges. Until that kind of infrastructure is constructed, we have no chance. Granted tennis is an expensive sport, but if a kid has talent, the All India Tennis Association and other private academies pick up the kid and nurture them. So there are ways around that.
The other thing is sponsorship availability. Unfortunately cricket is the No. 1 sport in India, and takes about 95 percent of all sponsorship money. We don’t have anyone sponsoring tennis. Obviously, sponsorships would help considerably in funding lower-ranked players to play satellites and other events. Just getting sponsors for travel would allow players a lot more exposure. Playing in India alone doesn’t help them because they face the same competition. They need to get out and see what the real world’s about.
I don’t think sports can help India financially, but it certainly lifts everyone’s spirits every time a team or player does well in their field. And that’s what we strive to do.
INDIAN COACHES AND PLAYERS
The fact that we have very good coaches in India is evident from the kind of talent we’ve produced in Ramanathan and Ramesh who are some of the smoothest strokers of the tennis ball. Akhtar Ali, Nandan Bal, my father, all of them are very good coaches.
A lot of kids are coming up in India now; three or four of them are very talented—one of them is in the top three in college in America right now. So we’re looking good for the future as long as we can nurture these players into champions.
Harsh Mankad has been on the team for a while. We have Rohan Bopanna, who is showing a lot of promise and has been literally flying off the rankings over the last two months. He has actually got a very big game, a huge serve and a big rally. So we’re looking forward to him showing us some colors. The fact remains that it is a very different ball game when it comes to international circuit, but we’ve all made the transition. So until the boy gets a chance to make the transition, it’s really hard to say anything.
I’ve watched some of the second generation Indians in the U.S. play, namely Prakash Amritraj and Rajiv Ram—both are very talented. Prakash has just gone to USC and Rajiv might be turning pro. They have a lot of backing in the form of the USTA. I think they’ve got the upper hand on the kids here in India.
Indian women tennis players are struggling; we do have a couple of good players in Nirupama Vaidyanathan and Manisha Malhotra, both of whom are based out of India. But we really don’t have many girls brought up on the Indian system that make it on the professional tour.
Considering the amount of sacrifice and hard work involved in today’s game to become any kind of tennis player, it is a tough call to advise the young. Getting to this point in our careers, we know how hard it is on a professional tour. Given that there are 1,500 players in the men’s ranking, there are 10,000 other players sweating it out every day, just trying to make it into the rankings. Unless your kid really wants to give it a shot there is no point pushing it.
I really haven’t given it too much thought. I know I’m going to be playing at least for the next four years. After that I have a bunch of options. Going into coaching is appealing. My father has an academy running in Bangalore, the Nike Bhupathi Tennis village, where I’d like to start with the top juniors in the country. That’s a long time away and I have not made any firm decisions.
2002 Siebel Open runs Feb. 25-March 3. Compaq Center, San Jose. For tickets, seating chart, and more information go to http:\Indian Express.tripod.com.
Vijaya Kashyap is a marketing consultant based in Silicon Valley.