Mahesh Bhupathi is not only a former Indian tennis player, but he is undoubtedly one of the greatest sports icon of our nation. The first Indian to win a Grand Slam tournament, Mahesh Bhupathi dominated the tennis court for over 20 years. He is regarded by many international tennis greats as the best mixed doubles player to ever grace the Grand Slams.
During the mid 90’s India saw two young players who rose to the occasion to make a name for themselves, one was Leander Paes and second was Mahesh Bhupathi. Though India had a long history of some of the world’s best tennis players like, Ramanathan Krishnan and Amritraj Brothers, it was Paes and Bhupathi that must be credited with the evolution of tennis in India.
Their legacy for some time was matched by Somdev Devvarman, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza. But none could match the intensity and on-court presence like Lee-Hesh (Leander and Mahesh).
As the article is based on the life and times of Mahesh Bhupathi, let’s discuss more about the First Indian to win a Grand Slam Tournament.
A Young Mahesh Bhupathi in the Making
Doubles Tennis star Mahesh Srinivas Bhupathi, is India’s outstanding sporting heroes. He is known for his booming serves and hard-hitting volleys. Born on 7th June, 1974 in Madras, Tamil Nadu, Bhupathi was educated in Dubai, Muscat and in USA. His father C.G. Krishna Bhupathi was his first coach and trained him right from his formative years, which was carried out exclusively on hard courts in the Middle East. We can say that his son has proved that hard work pays.
Right from his teens Mahesh Bhupathi has traveled extensively and has played in major tournaments all over the world. Developing as a player, he had an outstanding two-year career at the University of Mississippi from 1994-95; winning singles and doubles All-America honors of 1995. Incidentally, he was also the finalist in the doubles section in the Under-18 at Wimbledon. Who knew during the time that this 18 year old will start dominating the doubles circuit from that point onwards.
Bhupathi turned pro in 1995. He teamed with Ali Hamadeh in 1995 to win the NCAA doubles title and finished as the No. 1 player in doubles and No. 3 in singles. Mahesh became India’s national champion in 1994 and 1995 and a member of the Indian Davis Cup team since 1995 and represents India in Davis Cup Singles and Doubles matches. He won Silver and 3 Gold medals at the SAF Games, represented India at the Atlanta Olympics – 1996, took India to the Quarter Finals of the Elite World Group in Davis Cup along with Leander Paes.
1997 was the biggest year for Mahesh Bhupathi as the boy who turned pro just two years earlier, became the first Indian to win a Grand Slam when he bagged the mixed doubles French Open along with Japan’s Rika Hiraki.
Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes – ‘The Domination of Indian Express’
Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes will go down in the history of tennis as the most dominant doubles pair ever. Their partnership was fondly called by tennis fans as “Indian Express.” Bhupathi’s partnership with Leander Paes formed a doubles dream team which took Indian tennis to heights of glory. Their first major victory was at the 1997 ATP Gold Flake Open Tennis tournament at Chennai. Going forward they made it a hat-trick of triumphs by winning the Gold Flake open titles during 1998 and 1999.
The duo captured six ATP doubles titles in seven finals and qualified for ATP World doubles Championship losing to Leach-Stark in final. The year 1999 was a big one for Indian Express. They showed their class by winning the French Open and Wimbledon and entering the finals of the two other Grand Slam Tournaments; the Australian and US Opens. By doing so they became the first team since 1952 to reach the final of all four Grand Slam events in the same year. Bhupathi-Paes also won the doubles title at Roland Garros in 1999.
However, as soon after they started dominating the World Tennis scene, the world top ranked pair separated due to mutual misunderstanding. Fortunately for Indian sports fans, they came back together again after a gap of eight months. After reunion, the pair participated together at the Sydney Olympics and started regaining their lost prestige at the end of 2000, winning the Men’s Double title in Japan Open 2000, and followed it by Worlds Doubles Championship in Bangalore and in 2001 Verizon Atlanta Challenge, US Clay court Championship in Houston and again at Roland Garros defeating the Czech pair of Petr Pala and Pavel Vizner, who were ranked world no. 2 at that point of time.
Mahesh Bhupathi – Is he the greatest Mixed Doubles player ever?
More than men’s double, it was the mixed doubles category where Bhupathi showed his true prowess. He holds the unique record of winning the Grand slam titles with seven different partner’s right from his first title winning feat with Rika Hiraki to compatriot Sania Mirza.
Another unique statistic of Mahesh Bhupathi is that he has won all his eight Grand Slam mixed doubles titles with seven different partners and in straight sets.The only partner who has the distinction of winning twice with Bhupathi is compatriot Sania Mirza.
Mahesh and Sania won the Australian Open on hard court in 2009 after being runners-up in 2008. After a three-year wait, the two on won their second Grand Slam title on the red clay at Roland Garros (French Open) in Paris.
The number of Grand Slam titles would have been higher, but Mahesh was on the losing side in the finals four times. He lost twice at Wimbledon, with Croat Mirjana Lucic in 1998 and with Russian Elena Vesnina in 2011. Along with that he lost the finals of French Open with Elena Likhovtseva of Russia, and the Australian Open final with Sania Mirza.
Mahesh Bhupathi Grand Slam victories in mixed doubles and his partners:
- 1997 – French Open Clay court: with Rika Hiraki beat Patrick Galbraith and Lisa Raymond (US) 6-4,6-1
- 1999 – US Open Hard court: with Ai Sugiyama beat Donald Johnson and Kimberly Po (US) 6-4, 6-4
- 2002 Wimbledon Grass: with Elena Likhovtseva beat Daniela Hantuchova (Slovakia) and Kevin Ullyett (Zimbabwe) 6-2, 7-5
- 2005 Wimbledon (2): with Mary Pearce (France) beat Paul Hanley (Australia) and Tatiana Perebiynis (Ukraine) 6-4, 6-2
- 2005 US Open (2) Hard with Daniela Hantuchova (Slovakia) beat Katarina Srebotnik (Slovenia) and (Slovenia) and Nenad Zimonjic (Serbia) 6-4, 6-2
- 2006 Australian Open Hard: With Martina Hingis (Switzerland) beat Elena Likhovtseva (Russia) and Daniel Nestor (Bahamas) 6-3, 6-3
- 2009 Australian Open (2): with Sania Mirza (India) beat Nathalie Dechy (France) and Andy Ram (Israel) 6-3, 6-1
- 2012 French Open (2): With Sania Mirza (India) beat Klaudia Jans-Ignacik (Poland) and Santiago Gonzalez (Mexico) 7-6 (3), 6-1
Mahesh Bhupathi-Leander Paes and the big fight
Together Mahesh Bhupathi and Paes featured in a number of Grand Slam events and went on to win some of the prestigious tournaments, including Davis Cup and Wimbledon. The duo climbed the ladder of the accomplishment, by winning a number of Doubles titles.
But, due to some reasons that are only known to the ‘Indian Express’ and unknown to the outside world, the Paes-Bhupathi relationship fluctuated, as the time passed by. It turned from good, bad to worse and ugly. Ultimately, in 2006, just after winning the Asian Games, both the players officially announced their split. They openly declared that they would never play together.
However, even after sharing a cold relationship, the pair reunited, just to play in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. They, however, continue to maintain the split.
The discord between the two greats surfaced when they had differences over Enrico Piperno, Paes’s trainer during his initial days. Piperno, who had a huge influence on Paes, “did not fancy Bhupathi”. However Paes believed Piperno would be more useful in a managerial capacity.
Also, Bhupathi had lived in Paes’s shadow long enough and wanted to make his own decisions. The tension could have been defused but for their fathers made needless statements in public. Yet the two tagged along despite the growing differences.
But the differences apparently became more acute following Bhupathi’s association with Globosport, a sports management firm. In some quarters, it was deemed as a needless distraction, feeding on Bhupathi’s mental energy.
After that Paes and Bhupathi had regrouped solely with the Olympics in mind. Winning the 2011 Chennai Open and making it to the Australian Open final a couple of weeks later was proof that they could aspire for another title.
There are other reports too that Paes formed a partnership with another player when Bhupathi was down with an injury and was out of action for few months. Bhupathi apparently did not take a liking to it.
But the good news is that the differences seem to have buried. Both players are going along with their lives. While Mahesh Bhupathi has retired, he is married to actress Lara Dutta and has a child. Leander is still gracing the tennis court.
As mentioned earlier, Mahesh Bhupathi is not just one of India’s best tennis players, but he is also the greatest sports icons our nation has ever seen. For his contribution to Indian sports this legend was bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2001. Hope the new tennis brigade continues the legacy of Mahesh Bhupathi forward.