Leander and Mahesh: Ageing slowly

The release of the list of seeds for the men’s doubles at the start of the French Open brought a lump to my throat yet again. The romantic in me wished that Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, two of India’s finest sporting ambassadors were paired up together and not with Czech Lukas Dlouhy and Max Mirnyi (Belarus) and in either half of the men’s doubles draw.

My heart flipped back a decade when, playing as a unit, they made it to the final of all four Grand Slams and won the French Open and Wimbledon crowns. I wished one more time they hadn’t broken their doubles partnership. My mind goes back to their gut-wrenching split a couple of years later and the mess they got themselves to around the 2006 Asian Games, leaving a whole nation clueless about their break up.

The realist in me, however, quickly came to terms with the fact that the two Indian legends were actually on the opposite halves of the draw at Roland Garros again. They have gone on to discover greater heights themselves because of the split; they found additional motivation to do well for themselves and may have become better men in the process.

Now, Leander and Mahesh need no certificate from me about their wonderful qualities. But I think it would be of help if share what I learnt about Leander Paes when I met him briefly some months ago in Mumbai as he got on board the Olympic Gold Quest foundation. He was talking to some journalists about how he found inspiration at home when he was growing up in Calcutta (as the wonderful eastern megapolis was still known).

“As a young boy growing up in Calcutta, I was inspired by blue jerseys that were stacked up in the cupboards at home. My mother’s jersey number was Five and my father’s Ten,” he said. The jerseys had been worn by his parents Jennifer who had played basketball for India and Vece Paes, a 1972 Olympic Games hockey medallist. “I wanted to try and emulate my father in winning a medal.”

I asked him to describe himself. He paused for a moment and said “In one word, multi-faceted. And in a sentence: As a student of life whose journey is to try and achieve excellence in everything he does.” He also went on to speak of how he sees sport an amazing vehicle to communicate with people, to bridge cultures, communities and languages.

I don’t think better words have been used to describe one of India’s most enduring and endearing champions in the past couple of decades.Indeed, they are wonderful examples for Indians to look up to, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. With Somdev Dev Varman coming along now, India can continue to hope that its presence in the world stage would be extended but until he features in more Grand Slam events and the ATP Tour consistently to be a top 100 player, one can only say: May Leander and Mahesh continue to age slowly.