When one talks about Tennis in India, there were some star players who had made giant strides from the 60s till the 80s. The likes of Ramanathan and Ramesh Krishnan, as well as the magnificent performance of Vijay Amritraj had made India a decent force in world Tennis. By the time the 90s came, India’s clout had diminished significantly. However, by the mid-90s, there were a couple of players who were once again helped India make big strides in the sport. It all began in 1991, started with some success in 1996 and 1997 but reached the zenith in 1999.
In 1991, Leander Paes from Kolkata turned professional after reaching the No.1 ranking in junior Tennis. In 1996, Paes achieved history as he secured the bronze medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, becoming the first player since 1952 to win an individual medal in Olympics. Before that, he had achieved tremendous singles success by beating the-then World No.1 Pete Sampras in a singles match. In 1997, there was one more player who achieved tremendous success. In 1997, Mahesh Bhupathi paired with Rika Hiraki to win the French Open mixed doubles title.
However, in 1999, Paes and Bhupathi combined to create one of the most memorable moments in Tennis history. The year 1999 would prove to be a watershed in consistency and establish a new yardstick by which Indian Tennis would be known.
In 1999, the Paes-Bhupathi combo, known as the ‘Indian Express’ went on to reach the doubles final of the Australian, Wimbledon, US and French Open. Paes and Bhupathi would go on to win the French and Wimbledon Open and lose in the final agonizingly in both the Australian and US Open. Paes and Bhupathi would have further success by winning the French Open in 2001 as well as securing the Asian Games gold medal in Doha in 2006.
However, Paes and Bhupathi would have differences which impacted their partnership. The fighting that has been going on for more than a decade has threatened to sully their glory. For four years, they represented the best that Indian sport had to offer. The skill, the passion, Paes’ volleys at the net, Bhupathi’s monster backhand from the baseline. They took on the best in the world, and came out on top consistently. Such was the success rate that John McEnroe once enquired, “Did you guys win or is that a stupid question?”. In that period, India enjoyed sporting success in small, irregular doses. A hockey medal here, an overseas Test victory there. It was the surprise factor we enjoyed the most. Paes and Bhupathi changed that.
Paes has gone on to establish himself as the ultimate legend in the doubles department after winning the career Grand Slam while he has had success even in Mixed doubles in the first two decades of the millennium, securing the career slam even in that department.
The Paes-Bhupathi combination was the best thing that has happened to Indian Tennis. Whether anyone emulates it will be hard to imagine, considering the competitive nature of Tennis now.