Following a social media post a few days ago, the air was abuzz with whispers that the Indian Express will be coming back together soon and share the stage for an enigmatic US-based brand. In fact, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were united off the court once again on Friday evening. The dynamic duo of Indian Tennis spoke at length on Tennis, Indian sport overall and beyond with Network 18’s Kuntal Chakraborty. Here are the excerpts.
How does it feel when you combine every time on and off the field?
Mahesh: At this stage of our life, it feels good as we don’t get chances to play on the court as often as we earlier used to. So, every time we come together there is always a specific reason. This time we are united for a brand promotion, and it feels good.
Leander: Every time we come together in a room it reminds me of the magic we have created together. I still remember winning the last few points together at the Wimbledon when Mahesh was serving for the match and that whole dream of coming together as an Indian team to win Wimbledon finally was realized. So, for me, it is special to celebrate the fact that as an Indian pair, we have won multiple grand slams together and played in the Olympics.
Why do you think India could never produce a pair like you in Tennis?
Leander: People now realize how tough it is to win a Grand Slam. Mahesh won India’s first grand slam and I went on to win India’s first Olympics medal after 44 years, that people started getting used to the fact that we could win a lot. Mahesh has have won 12 grand slams, and I’ve won 18 along with a medal in the Olympics.
In every grand slam, people expected us to win, but I think since Sania, and I won our last majors in 2016 and after Rohan Bopanna’s victory a few years ago people started realizing how difficult it is to win Grand slams. It feels amazing that we have got 30 grand slam victories if our records are put together.
Your take on the badminton duo of Chirag and Satwick, their chemistry on court almost matches you two?
Mahesh: We all hope they will reach even greater heights. They are playing very well this year, and everyone can see the hard work they put in and the camaraderie and I guess their chemistry is also very good. We all hope bigger and better things from them, and I am glad that they are setting a benchmark like us.
On Carlos Alcaraz? Will he be as good in future as the big trio?
Leander: There’s no question that Carlos has re-defined the game of tennis, specifically with his speed and balance across the court. It’s early to tell because first he must win all four Grand Slams and he hasn’t yet done that.
Then he has got to better those players who has won 6,8 or 10 Grand Slams. The potential he is showing that everyone has started thinking he will win 24 or 25. But I think there’s undue pressure on him. I think that If I was part of his team or looking at him, I would have told him to enjoy the process.
It’s such a long process that…these social media and the world we live in where there is instant gratification that everyone is called a legend after winning 1 grand slam. So, I think it is very important to realize who the GOAT is. You called Federer the GOAT as he has won 20, you call Rafa a GOAT as he has won 22, you call Djokovic a GOAT as he has won 23. This young kid is phenomenal, but he has just won two. A long, long way to go for Alcaraz.
On Novak Djokovic… Where will he finish? Your predictions.
Mahesh: We are talking about the greatest player of all time, and we are talking about someone who is still at his peak in my opinion as he has won 2 grand slams this year, he just has beaten Alcaraz in an incredible match last weekend. So how many can he win? I think he can win at least two in a year for a couple more years. But from my tennis perspective, it will be exciting if someone can challenge him. Till Alcaraz came it was looking like nobody can challenge him and looked like he will win all 4 in a year.
India’s overall chances in Paris Olympics Games 2024? Can we win 10 medals?
Mahesh: When we were playing in our first couple of Olympics, we thought if we can get a medal, now I am so excited that you are talking whether we can get 10 medals…so we have come a long way, everyone is putting an effort, that is the dream, if India comes back with 10 medals, we will all celebrate together.
Leander: I think Tokyo Olympics was fantastic from India’s perspective. Most medals India has ever won in an Olympic games. So, to see the same athletes coming back and repeating the same feat will be fantastic. So, if Neeraj Chopra and the badminton players again do the same feat it will be brilliant. I think the bar was raised high in Tokyo Olympics and in Paris, we will do very well. I hope India will get to that double digit like you said.
Neeraj Chopra has made it to the World Athletics Championship final in Budapest on Friday with his season-best throw. Do you reckon he will bring many more medals for the country at the highest stages?
Leander: He is a great athlete. We are always wishing our athletes the best. Supporting, and encouraging them. Neeraj, I know him very well and he is just a world-class athlete. What he has done in a sport that India was not even known for, Javelin – it’s just incredible. Phenomenal athlete and really a nice guy.
Mahesh: I am a fan. The more medals he wins I get more excited just for the country and for the sport. So, always wish him the best.