If one were to name the greatest sportsmen to have played for the Indian tricolour, most of them would undoubtedly be cricketers. In a country where cricket is more than religion, other sportsmen have always complained about how very little attention they get at home. Yet there are some sportspersons who can boast of being able to attract connoisseurs as much as their cricket playing counterparts. Tennis is a sport which has more than one such star.
Indian tennis players have had a little share of the limelight in a sport which is so accustomed to seeing Europeans and Americans in the lead. The Krishnans and Amritrajs were some of the early torchbearers of the game in India. It was in the late 90s that some of our best talents blossomed. Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes and now, Sania Mirza have achieved far more than their predecessors apart from being the only Grand Slam winners. But when it comes to naming the greatest among the three, one would surely stumble.
First things first
When it comes to being the first, Mahesh Bhupathi surely comes to the forefront. He was the first ever major winner from India. We had till then produced some fine champions, but a grand slam winner was not among them, notwithstanding the few triumphs among the juniors.
In tandem with Rika Hiraki of Japan, Mahesh Bhupathi won the 1997 french Open. He was also the first Indian to ever clinch the world no.1 spot. In April 1999, nearing his 25th birthday, Bhupathi created history by becoming the first Indian to ever to top the world rankings. He is also the first Indian to complete a career grand slam, in the mixed category.
Grand Slam wins
Among the three, Paes has amassed the highest number of grand slams, with eight in men’s doubles and another nine in mixed doubles. In fact, he holds the record of being the man with the highest number of titles in mixed doubles. In the men’s doubles category, he completed a career grand slam in 2012 with a title at Melbourne along with partner Radek Stepanek, though the two had joined forces just then.
Though he has nine titles in mixed doubles, he still does not own a French Open trophy. With the momentum he and Martina Hingis are having right now, he could capture that elusive crown next year and complete the collection. Incidentally, Hingis would do so too.
Bhupathi, undoubtedly one of the best players in mixed doubles, has 12 majors, four in the men’s category and eight in the mixed. The Australian Open men’s doubles trophy is the only silverware that he has not yet set his hands upon.
He successfully completed the career grand slam in mixed doubles with 2006 Australian Open win with Martina Hingis. He now has two trophies from each of the majors. Incidentally, Hingis’ current partner, Sania Mirza, helped Bhupathi complete it the second time (at the 2012 French Open).
At 28 years of age, enjoying the brightest moments of her career is the golden girl of Indian tennis, Sania Mirza. With the Indo-Swiss partnership of Mirza and Hingis clicking very well, the Indian now has two grand slams in women’s doubles apart from three that she has in mixed doubles.
Looking at the future prospects, Sania can complete career grand slams in both the categories. She is in fact well poised to hold all the four trophies at the same time in Women’s doubles with two already in her kitty, thanks to her exploits this year. In mixed, the only remaining task is to win that elusive Wimbledon title.
Though they are great champions in doubles, Paes and Bhupathi have never found firm ground in singles play. Bhupathi never did excel in singles, while Paes fared better. Though he was never a top player or contender at any of the slams, Paes managed at least a second round finish at all of the majors.
More importantly, when India did not have a quality singles player to complement the Indian express in Davis Cup ties, Paes managed to singlehandedly clinch many a tie. His best ever result was the Olympic bronze in Atlanta, which he won after upstaging many a mighty opponent. Though he performed well at crucial moments, even in his late thirties, his prowess in singles was waning.
On the other hand, the emergence of a champion in Sania Mirza was heralded as the revival of singles stardom in Indian tennis. Her rise helped to fill in the void created in Indian tennis after the phenomenal rise of the two doubles stars. In fact, a woman performing at that level did not have any precedents, leave alone hopes.
From 2003 to 2005, Mirza established herself, slowly, as a big star in the singles format of the women’s game. She was given the WTA Newcomer of the year in 2005. In fact, she reached a career high ranking of no.27 in the world, prompting many believe that she could one day make a deep run at a slam. Yet, recurring injuries forced shut a singles career that was very much what Indian tennis required.
When it comes to national duty, none of the three have shied away from the responsibility. Last year, Sania skipped the Wuhan tournament, which was crucial for her WTA Championships qualification, to play at the Asian games.
Paes and Bhupathi had also set aside their differences to play for the nation at Davis Cup and the Olympic games. Yet, when they had a choice of a different partner at the 2012 London Olympics, they refused to play with each other. In the end, medals were compromised in both the sections as Mirza was made the bait and had to play with Paes in the mixed category.
Controversies and off court activities
Controversies have not spared any of the three. Be it partner issues (even life partners), government recognitions, selection issues or anything you name, the trio have seen it all.
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have had a tumultuous ride ever since their first breakup, if you can even remember which one it was. For apparently unknown or unclear reasons, the duo dissolved their partnership in the early 2000s. Touted to be in league with the Woodies, the Indian Express, as they were known, were a highly successful combo prior to the split.
They reached all four major finals in the same year in 1999, which was the first time any pair had done it in the Open era. It was a partnership that had the potential to create records that would last for long. Yet, the two never again played with comfort. They did play routinely at the Davis cup and at the Olympics. When in 2011 they joined forces, it seemed that a compromise had been reached, but they broke many hearts with their parting at the end of the year.
In the year that followed, one of the biggest and ugliest altercations took place ahead of the London Olympics. This time around, Mirza and Bopanna were also involved in an imbroglio that will ever remain etched in the minds of ardent fans. Apparently, the team returned medalless from the quadrennial event.
When one went through traumatic times in their personal lives, the other would somehow, at least ostentatiously, be there to comfort the other. Very recently, Bhupathi cameout in support of Paes when he was fighting for the custody of his child after separation from with his wife.
Keeping in line with the unpredictable nature of their relationship, Paes is now part of the Japan Warriors for the second season of IPTL.
While the controversies that involved the two men were mostly of their own making, Sania, was subject to a lot of criticism and ridicule from others. Some of them like the national flag incident at the Hopman cup could have been avoided while many others have been irrelevant to those who raised objections as they were also choices made by Mirza in her personal life.
The pursuit for growth and success have helped her ignore and overcome these issues and realise her dreams
The road ahead
At over forty years of age, Paes, already the oldest man to win a grand slam, continues to play at the highest levels. As he has stated in many interviews, it is the pleasure of creating records that still propels his engine.
After the end of his partnership with Radek Stepanek, he has found it hard to survive on the circuit without a steady partner.His ranking has plummeted and it remains to be seen whether he can find the right partner for 2016. His game is still effective, as evident from the three mixed slams that he has won this year. Yet, his survival is in jeopardy with bad results on the ATP circuit. The fulfilment of his dream of playing a record seventh Olympic games next year depends on whether he is able to hold steady.
Bhupathi, on the other hand, has not yet announced his retirement, but has played just a handful of tournaments with no noteworthy result. He is now looking to successfully establish the IPTL as a regular feature on the tennis calendar. With him not in the running, the race to Olympics could become a lot more simpler.
Sania Mirza is now enjoying the best days of her career. Her performances have been getting better over the years and 2015 has been the best so far. She is already nearing both in terms of records, be it the number of weeks at the top (Leander Paes held it for 39 weeks, Mahesh Bhupathi for 4 weeks, while Sania has completed 28 consecutive weeks already) or career grand slams. With a couple of more years of active play remaining, she could even surpass the other two in terms of results.
Paes and Bhupathi will be remembered always as the first to take Indian tennis to such a high level, despite the presence of highly successful predecessors. What the two have done over the last two decades to the game of tennis is immense.
Apart from kindling fan interest, many players now have role models to look up to. Ask any Indian player, the two will definitely feature among the people whom they idolise. The standards that they have set will only push the future generations to perform even better. Whatever be the scenario off-court and however cryptic their relationship might be, their actions on court speak louder than their words off it.
Mirza has been the first ever Indian woman to reach such heights in tennis. Even among the women trailblazers in Indian sports, she has carved out a separate identity for her.
Had someone said that an Indian woman would achieve so much in tennis a few years back, it would have been discounted a Utopian dream. In fact, many had said the same to a young Sania Mirza.
With her persistence, dedication and highly reliable skills that she has honed over the years, she is realising her dreams of ruling the tennis world.
One of the most worrisome facts is that despite the success that she has had, none of the other Indian girls have managed to achieve even a fraction of what she has done over these years. In an endeavour to create many more such talents, she has now also opened a world class training facility at her hometown of Hyderabad.
Though she has had a very successful career, she cannot be equated with the other two. But, looking at the way in which her career is moving, she surely has the ability to equal or even better them.
Having said all that, it is highly difficult to point out to the best among the three. All of them have had their defining moments of glory. The contribution of each of the three to Indian tennis is immense. There is no convincing reason to point out to the best among the three. Indian tennis is proud to have three great champions who have ruled and are ruling the tennis world.