Reunited (and it feels so good)
A decade ago, they were the toast of Indian sports.
Leander Paes, a gifted shot-maker of small stature, and Mahesh Bhupathi, a long, tall hitter with big, bold strokes, crashed the doubles party and came away with three Grand Slam titles in three years. Their complementary games, their exquisite chemistry, were sometimes breathtaking to behold. In 2001, they received the coveted Padma Shri, India's highest honor for distinguished service -- the equivalent of knighthood in the British Empire.
And then it all fell apart. At the top of their game, they separated. Legend has it that their pursuit of a beautiful Bollywood actress, which allegedly erupted into a physical disagreement, was at the root of their problems. And so, for the next nine years, they played mostly with others partners.
"Needed a little time apart," Paes explained diplomatically after the reunited team won the Sony Ericsson doubles title. "Too much pressure on the partnership. We were No. 1 in the world for quite a few years and got to all Grand Slam finals in the same year . So if we won, everybody expected it. If we lost, it was like, 'Whoa, really?'
"Just wanted to give the friendship a bit of a breather."
The two enjoyed relative success apart; Paes won three more major titles and has a total of six Grand Slam mixed doubles crowns, while Bhupathi won one additional Grand Slam title and has collected seven mixed championships.
Paes played with Lukas Dlouhy, Paul Hanley, Martin Damm, Nenad Zimonjic and David Rikl. In the 2009 U.S. Open final, Paes and Dlouhy beat Bhupathi and Mark Knowles. Bhupathi, playing with Knowles and Max Mirnyi (winning the 2002 U.S. Open), has won 46 doubles titles with 13 partners.
But what might have been if they had managed to remain a team? While they maintained a professional relationship when they played Davis Cup and the Olympics for India, the two didn't get back together until this past November.
"Breakfast in Paris," Paes, now 37, explained in Miami.
"At Tiffany's," Bhupathi, 36, interjected.
They had played Davis Cup against Brazil, then in Bangkok, and decided it was time to put those petty personality issues behind them.
"There's spark there, magic there," Paes said. "Sometimes you need a little oxygen in a relationship, in a friendship, and that's what we got. Just a lot of life is timing, a lot of life is about karma. We're both Indian boys, so we believe that a lot.
"Over the nine years that we haven't played together, there have been times when we both asked the other to play, but it's not been the right timing. This time seemed to be the right timing, and the results prove for themselves."
After winning in Chennai to open the year, Paes and Bhupathi reached the finals of the Australian Open, losing to the Bryan brothers. They are 17-4 heading into the teeth of the European clay-court season, and sitting No. 5 (Bhupathi) and No. 7 (Paes) in the ATP World Tour rankings.
In India, Paes and Bhupathi are among the leading sportsmen in a sports-mad country. They are rock stars, pursued by the paparazzi. Eating dinner at a curbside French restaurant in Coconut Grove during the Sony Ericsson tournament, Paes looked relaxed and at peace -- and fairly anonymous.
"Feels great," Bhupathi said after defeating Daniel Nestor and Mirnyi in the final. "I told Leander when we made the final that it was my third in four years, so I needed him to carry me. Once we got to the breaker, he caught fire, and five minutes of magic made up for us not playing a great match but just hanging in there."
Magic -- there's that word again. Tennis is richer now that this partnership has returned.
5 Questions With …
They spring into the picture like sprightly robins, harbingers of a new season and, perhaps someday, a new world order.
A month ago, it was Milos Raonic, the 20-year-old Canadian who thumped his way to back-to-back finals in San Jose and Memphis. Well, say hello to Ryan Sweeting, a 23-year-old Floridian who was born in the Bahamas. Sweeting, who became a U.S. citizen five years ago, broke through with a victory last week in Houston. He defeated 21-year-old Kei Nishikori 6-4, 7-6 (3) in the youngest men's final so far this year. Sweeting knocked off 2010 Houston finalist Sam Querrey in the second round and hard-serving Ivo Karlovic in the semifinals. Sweeting's serve came alive as the tournament progressed; he was broken nine times in his first three matches, then only once in the final two.
His ranking, which was No. 93, vaulted to No. 67. Sweeting has qualified into five main draws this year -- best among ATP World Tour players -- and his new, elevated status will allow him more direct entries. ESPN.com caught up with Sweeting last week while he was home resting in Fort Lauderdale.
ESPN.com: The No. 1 question of casual tennis fans after your breakthrough win in Houston: Who is Ryan Sweeting -- and where did he come from?
Ryan Sweeting: There's always a lot of success in sports that doesn't get spread all over the Internet. I feel like my career has steadily been progressing, consistently. It's a tough for the average fan to follow that because tennis is not as well supported as some other sports. The people in the game, the families and support crews, they know.
ESPN.com: Specifically, what was the biggest key in winning that first title?
Sweeting: First, my fitness level has improved a great deal this year. Playing five matches on clay, well, in the past it would have been tough for me; I would have had to go to the reserve tank. In the offseason, I spent a lot of time at Saddlebrook in Tampa with the training and fitness team there. The other key was getting a lot of matches coming in, consistently winning three matches in tournaments, gaining more and more experience on the big stage. Against [Querrey and Karlovic], I felt I handled the pressure very well. I didn't let it impact my game.
ESPN.com: We saw that you got a little serving tip from Wayne Bryan, father of the Bryan brothers. He called it "a little A1 sauce on a 14-ounce filet mignon," but how did he help?
Sweeting: After the quarterfinals, Wayne noticed a few glitches in my serve. I've been playing around with it all year. He took me to the practice court with a bucket of balls, simplified my serve, broke it down. I was trying to do too much. He helped me with the toss and my arm position. It was definitely a positive moment in my week. My toss was way better, more relaxed, in the last two matches.
ESPN.com: It's not normal for U.S. players to look comfortable on clay. Why do you appear so smooth out there on the dirt?
Sweeting: I'm happy out there because I've been playing every day on clay since I started playing in the Bahamas at age 7. When I moved to Florida at 12, I still played on clay -- until I was 18. Most Americans have a tough time moving that first week on clay, transitioning from hard courts, sliding into the ball. I've been used to it for so long, it's really second nature.
ESPN.com: You're the first American to win his first ATP title on clay since Andy Roddick (2001 Atlanta). How does that bode for your clay season?
Sweeting: I'm excited. I'm debating whether to play a Challenger in Sarasota in a few weeks, but after that, I'll try to qualify in Rome and hope I can get into the main draw in Nice. With my ranking, I get into the main draw at Roland Garros and, hopefully, Wimbledon. My goal is to get past the second round of a major. My other goal is to get into the top 50. I have never gone backwards in my career, and I definitely don't want to start doing it now. I've never been more confident, never more comfortable. I'm very happy with the way I'm playing.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
On The Move
At an age when most tennis professionals are sliding down the rankings board, 29-year-old Mardy Fish has reversed the aging process. He's the first American to break into the ATP World Tour's top 10 since James Blake did it five years ago. Fish finds himself at No. 10 after Fernando Verdasco, a defending finalist at Monte Carlo, fell four spots to No. 12. Fish is only the fifth U.S. player to debut in the past two decades, following Jim Courier, Todd Martin, Andy Roddick and Blake. Other movers in the past two weeks:
Julian Register: Moves to No. 94, up 31 spots
Sania Mirza: No. 73, plus-17
Frederico Gil: No. 64, plus-18
Pablo Andujar: No. 51, plus-18
Elena Vesnina: No. 46, plus-10
Olga Govortsova No. 115, minus-29
Carla Suarez Navarro: No. 85, minus-36
Juan Carlos Ferrero: No. 77, minus-19
Philipp Kohlschreiber: No. 41, minus-7
Juan Ignacio Chela: No. 40, minus-12
Hardly A Leg To Stand On
Just when you thought it couldn't get any weirder at the top of women's tennis, yes, it gets even stranger.
Nine months ago, after winning Wimbledon, No. 1-ranked Serena Williams lost a battle with a broken glass in a German restaurant and her right foot was severely damaged -- it was the first blow in a series of setbacks that have left her sidelined ever since. Filling the void was Kim Clijsters, who has won the past two Grand Slam singles titles.
A third straight looks unlikely after the 27-year-old Belgian also took a serious misstep. Wearing high heels at her cousin Tim's wedding, Clijsters stepped on someone and rolled her ankle. The damage was complete: a torn ankle joint capsule and tendon sheath, plus stretched ligaments.
She is using crutches and reportedly is out for four to six weeks. This, combined with pre-existing wrist and shoulder injuries, is likely to keep her out of the French Open and threaten her preparation for Wimbledon.
With all the heat on No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki to win her first major, Roland Garros should be interesting.
• Rafael Nadal won his first title since October, winning Monte Carlo for the seventh consecutive year. Appropriately, the first of his 19 career ATP World Tour Masters 1000 also came in Monte Carlo. Nadal -- still only 24 -- already has won more Masters events than anyone, two more than Andre Agassi and Roger Federer. Nadal also moved into a tie with Bjorn Borg and Manuel Orantes for third on the all-time clay titles list, with 30. Guillermo Vilas (45) and Thomas Muster (40), for now, are the leaders. Nadal is an amazing 181-6 (97 percent) in his past six-plus seasons on the dirt. How many of those six losses can you remember? See answer below.
• Teenagers Melanie Oudin and Christina McHale couldn't prevent the United States from falling out of Fed Cup for the first time in the history of the competition, going back to 1995. Germany, led by Andrea Petkovic and Julia Goerges, defeated the U.S. 5-0 over the weekend in Stuttgart to advance to the 2012 World Group. The U.S. is relegated to Fed Cup World Group II.
• Robert Kendrick is the only American in the singles draw at this week's tournament in Barcelona.
• Congratulations to the winners at the 44th Easter Bowl USTA Junior Spring National Championships at Rancho Las Palmas resort, including: Marcus Giron (boys' 18s singles), Kyle McPhillips (girls' 18s singles), Gage Brymer (boys' 16s singles) and Caroline Doyle (girls' 16s singles).
• Bob and Mike Bryan won the doubles crown at Monte Carlo for their record 70th title with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Juan Ignacio Chela and Bruno Soares. Afterward, Bob thanked Prince Albert for staying to watch the doubles final. Daniel Nestor, the active leader with 72 titles, is four wins from his 800th, which he could achieve with a victory this week in Barcelona, where he is teamed with Max Mirnyi and seeded No. 2, behind the Bryans.
• Jimmy Connors will lock up with John McEnroe for the 35th time on July 14 in a World Team Tennis matchup between the New York Sportimes and the Philadelphia Freedoms. Tickets are scaled at $250, $150, $80 and $20, and proceeds will benefit the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.
• A little ATP World Tour statistical housekeeping: It had been reported widely that Novak Djokovic's 24-0 start to the season was threatening some historic marks. Now, he'll have to work a little harder to equal those feats. Upon further review, factoring in the results of the year-end masters events, Ivan Lendl went 29-0 to begin the 1986 season and John McEnroe was a staggering 42-0 to open 1984. Djokovic is scheduled to play in his own tournament, the Serbian Open, next week and could collide with Nadal a week later in Madrid.
• Here are Rafa's six losses on clay in the past six years: 2005 Buenos Aires -- lost to Gaston Gaudio in quarterfinals; 2005 Valencia -- lost to Igor Andreev in quarterfinals; 2007 Hamburg -- lost to Roger Federer in final; 2008 Rome -- lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero in second round (bye); 2009 Madrid -- lost to Federer in final; 2009 Roland Garros -- lost to Robin Soderling in fourth round.