Tennis Wimbledon: Double act put India top again

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The Independent Online
NINE years ago Leander Paes won junior Wimbledon, and put India back on the Grand Slam map for the first time since the days of Vijay Amritraj.

Paes has not won a singles match at the tournament since then, but 1999 could be his year, in the doubles.

Paes and compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi are the No 1 seeds here after winning the French Open.

"The buzz after the French Open was fantastic, but we're just doing the best we can do." said Bhupathi. "We always have to be ready. If we're not 100 per cent on a certain day, we could lose to anybody."

Not the kind of self-deprecating talk you would expect from the best doubles duo in the world. But then again Wimbledon is a blot on an otherwise fairly tidy copybook. The Indian pair were beaten in the second round last year and are the first to admit their discomfort on the hallowed grass courts.

"Grass is not our favourite surface. To win would be a dream come true. But we don't perform as well as we'd like here," said Bhupathi.

Try telling that to the German and Dutch pairing of Michael Kohlmann and Tom Kempers. The Indians had them scuttling all over the court in their first round match on Wednesday and went on to win 6-4, 6-2, 7-6.

Sharp volleys were sent down the middle of the court, drop shots were angled into the sidelines and smashes aimed at their opponents' feet.

"We played some very good tennis, we've got a lot of confidence under our belt." said Paes.

Quietly spoken off court, the 26-year-old comes to life when he gets a racket in his hand and keeps up a constant stream of chatter with Bhupathi between and during points.

The duo, who call themselves the "Indian Express'', have been together for three years. Individually they have made little impact. Bhupathi has a world singles ranking of 245 while Paes is just outside the top 100 at No 101.

But Bhupathi's power and the speed and agility of Paes makes for a deadly combination. "We complement each other really well." said Bhupathi.

So what about the weight of expectation back home? Doubles has never been the real thing in Grand Slams, but for a nation starved of sporting success it is a good place to start.

Paes is philosophical about his status. At least he's not a cricketer.

"Cricket is like a religion back home," he explains. "Every time [Indian batsman Sachin] Tendulkar steps on to the wicket he feels the pressure.

"For us, we get a lot of appreciation rather than pressure and we're grateful for that."

With so many fans to impress, it's best not to think about it too much. "There are 900 million people to worry about, he added. "I think we'll leave that alone."