When Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi became the first Indian pair to win a Grand Slam at the 1999 French Open, it was a historic achievement celebrated across the country.
The final decade of the last millennium had not seen much success for India as a sporting nation and in tennis, the dearth of success after the Krishnans and the Amritrajs was clearly evident.
Paes and Bhupathi had already established themselves as top players in the 1990s – Paes with an Olympic medal in 1996 and Bhupathi with the first Grand Slam won by an Indian at the 1997 French Open.
But an all-Indian pair winning a Major together, and starting a season in such a dominant fashion was unprecedented. They became the first pair to reach the finals of all Grand Slams in a year in the Open era, winning French Open and Wimbledon as top seeds. Yet, as incredible as the feat was, in a way it felt almost inevitable because of how consistent the “Indian Express”, as they were dubbed, had been the last couple of years.
It was a gradual progression. They won six ATP tour titles in 1997, reached three Grand Slam semi-finals in 1998 and won two Grand Slam titles in 1999, by then Paes and Bhupathi became the poster boys of Indian sport, raking in the audience and the money.
Considered one of the most attuned men’s doubles pairs in tennis, Paes’s wizardry at the net was well complimented by Bhupathi’s excellent play from the baseline. And who could forget their famous well-orchestrated chest-bumps after winning a tough point or a set. Their friendship and camaraderie on court enhanced their success and the three years from 1997 Chennai Open, where they won their first title together, was an unforgettable time for Indian tennis, rarely seen since.
Grand Slam success
In 1997, the duo reached their first Grand Slam semi-final at the US Open as 10th seeds, losing to eventual champions Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Daniel Vacek. From then on, they reached the semi-finals at three of the four Grand Slams in 1998, each time falling at the semi-final hurdle.
In 1999, they crossed that particular obstacle, reaching their first final together at the Australian Open as top seeds. But they couldn’t get past Patrick Rafter and Jonas Bjorkman, losing 6–3, 4–6, 6–4, 6–7(10–12), 6–4 is a tough five-setter.
But that disappointment didn’t last long as the top seeds reached the final again at the next Grand Slam, the French Open. And this time the finish line was crossed in style, the unseeded team of Goran Ivanisevi and Jeff Tarango, 6–2, 7–5.
At Wimbledon, they made it consecutive Majors beating Paul Haarhuis and Jared Palmer in a much closer match, winning 6-7(10), 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(4). They then reached the final of the US Open as well, but went down to Alex O’Brien and Sebastien Lareau 7–6(9–7), 6–4.
Nevertheless, the record books were buzzing. Lee-Hesh were first pair to reach four successive Grand Slam finals in one year since 1952 and were the world No 1 pair.
Today it is almost unimaginable for a doubles pair from India scaling the peaks Paes and Bhupathi did more than two decades ago. That alone, some would say, is enough to firmly establish their legacy for generations to come.
In a 1999 cover story for India Today, noted sports wrote Rohit Brijnath described their feat as:
They have 16 titles; they are the first pair to reach four successive Grand Slam finals in one year since 1952 and have the French Open and Wimbledon titles nestling in their Boss suit pockets; they have McEnroe telling them one day “did you guys win today or is that a stupid question” and Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated labelling them “tennis’ best kept secret”; and despite losing the US Open final they remain No.1 in the world.
It’s a vindication of the undying belief of two families. It’s a triumph of two men’s perseverance. Lee, 26, Davis Cup hero, Olympic medallist, dashing, sweet talking, passionate, and Hesh, 25, once lesser known, thoughtful, determined, whose quiet calm can’t hood his wicked eyes: boys turned winners - Lee since 1991 earning over $2 million (Rs 8.6 crore) in prize money, Hesh about $1.5 million (Rs 6.5 crore) - all because they never forgot how to play for each other.
At the end of the decade and millennium, they were the top ranked men’s doubles pair. However, they couldn’t replicate the highs of the season in the 2000s.
Bhupathi missed the Australian Open, where Paes played with Lareau and lost in the first round. Defending champions at Roland Garros, they competed with different partners. Bhupathi played with David Prinosil and lost to Juan Ignacio Carrasco and Jairo Velasco in the second round while Paes and Jan Siemerink lost to Guy Forget and Guillaume Raoux in the first round.
At Wimbledon, Paes did not compete while Bhupathi partnered Prinosil and lost in the third round to Roger Federer and Andrew Kratzmann. They played the US Open together but lost in the first round.
Their next Grand Slam final together was the 2001 French Open, where they won their third and final Major together defeating Petr Pala and Pavel Vizner 7–6 (5), 6–3. But they were knocked out in the first round of the other three Slams and eventually parted ways mainly due to off-court issues.
Exactly a decade later, they would reunite for another memorable season that saw them start by winning the Chennai Open at home and win the Cincinnati Masters. They even reach the final of the 2011 Australian Open but the legendary pair of Mike and Bob Bryan beat them 6-3, 6-4.
Off court, their differences became bitter and accusation flew with questions over commitment and favoritism. But even with personal animosity and public feuds, the two would often reunite to play for India. They have a great 25-2 record in Davis Cup matches and the distinction of the longest winning streak 24 and unbeaten - from 1997 to 2010. They have also won the gold medal at the 2002 and 2006 Asian Games and bronze at the 2010 Commonwealth Games together.
They have come close to winning an Olympic medal twice. In Athens 2004, they lost in the bronze medal playoff 6-7, 6-4, 14-16 to Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic after a tough fight while they lost in the quarterfinals to the eventual champions Federer and Wawrinka at Beijing 2008. By 2012 London though, the cracks were too severe and both played with different partners.
Lately, their strained relationship seems to have mellowed down a bit as well with sentiments of mutual respect often seen in interviews. Bhupathi was the Davis Cup captain as Paes broke records and is still going strong on the Tour and while 2020 was to be his final season but the coronavirus pandemic has brought an end to that.
“We kind of conquered a white man’s game, which was never done before. It led to a lot of success... 1999 was the peak. We were the Titans of the doubles world, it was a lot of fun. We continued playing together, on and off, for about 15-16 years,” Bhupathi said in a recent Instagram chat.
Paes, too, reminisced about how big their feat actually was.
“I had a vision that two Indian boys could conquer the world in tennis and win Wimbledon. Until then, no Indian had won a senior title at Wimbledon. When we went on to get to all four Grand Slam finals in 1999 we won the French, we won Wimbledon. Mahesh and myself went on to do some great things,” he said in an interview with The Times of India.
For all their differences off the court, Indian tennis legends Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi served up some delightful moments when they played doubles together.
In the video below, they talk about their partnership: