Heading into the 2004 Athens Olympics, the relationship between Indian tennis stars Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi had endured a rollercoaster ride over the years. They reached the men’s doubles final in all four Grand Slams in 1999, winning the French Open and Wimbledon titles that year, and also claimed the Roland Garros title in 2001.
In 2002, though, it seemed their partnership had ended for good. The results on the court weren’t as impressive as they used to be and the duo decided to part ways.
However, for the 2004 Olympics, Paes and Bhupathi decided to give their partnership another shot in the hopes of landing a medal for India. In the previous edition of the Olympics, despite being in good form, they had suffered a second-round exit. But in Athens, they ended up delivering some world-class tennis before falling agonisingly short of the podium.
In the first round in Athens, the Indian pair, seeded fifth, got the better of America’s Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish. Paes and Bhupathi held their nerves in the first set tie-break, before running away with the contest in the second to win 7-6(5), 6-3.
It was in their second match that they put up their best performance. Up against Switzerland’s Yves Allegro and Roger Federer, the Indians served a reminder of their incredible prowess in doubles tennis to win the match in straight sets.
Federer, who had just turned 23 at that time, was at the peak of his powers and had won Wimbledon twice and the Australian Open once in the previous 14 months. The future icon of the sport was solid with his serve in that second round men’s doubles match at the Athens Olympics, but his opponents that day played a smart game to cross the finish line.
Paes and Bhupathi upped the pressure on Allegro’s serve and broke him twice to bag the first set 6-2. The Swiss pair put up a tougher fight in the second and took it to a tie-breaker. But once again, it was the Indian duo that raised its level at just the right time to clinch the match 6-2, 7-6(7).
Four years later at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Paes and Bhupathi were up against Federer once again. But this time, in the quarter-finals, the Swiss had Stanislas Wawrinka as his partner and managed to get the win in straight sets.
“It was a sweet revenge today because I lost to them with Yves Allegro four years ago in Athens,” Federer had said after that match.
In the quarter-finals at Athens, Paes and Bhupathi proved to be too strong for Zimbabwe’s Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett, winning 6-4, 6-4. But in the semis, the Indians couldn’t find any rhythm and went down 2-6, 3-6 to the German pair of Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuttler.
And then came the match that is likely to hurt Indian tennis fans for many more years to come. In the bronze medal match against Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic, Paes and Bhupathi gave it their all but it wasn’t enough as Croatia bagged its third Olympic tennis medal in history.
The match lasted nearly four hours and ended at 1.05 am local time, with Paes getting his serve broken at 14-15 in the third and final set.
Paes and Bhupathi had bounced back strongly after their disappointing performance in the semi-finals. In the first set, they went toe-to-toe with the Croats from the start and took it to a tie-breaker. But Ljubicic and Ancic tightened up their game when it mattered most to get the lead.
However, the Indians didn’t let that bog them down and stormed back in the second to take the match to a deciding set. And what followed was an absolute marathon as all four players upped their serving game. It was impossible to tell which way the match would go but at the end, it was the Indians who blinked first and ended up losing the match 7-6(5), 4-6, 16-14.
The 2004 Athens Games proved to be the last time Paes and Bhupathi played together at the Olympics.
First round: beat Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish 7-6 (7-5), 6-3
Second round: beat Roger Federer and Yves Allegro 6-2, 7-6 (9-7)
Quarter-finals: beat Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyet 6-4, 6-4 in the quarter-finals.
Semi-finals: beaten by Germany’s unseeded pair of Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler 3-6, 3-6.