In Zee5’s latest seven-part docu-series titled ‘Break Point’, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi go into detail over their partnership and where the cracks started to appear.
“There is a big irony to the doubles team of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. What makes doubles players tick is the communication and trust. And they didn’t have that,” says sports writer Rohit Brijnath on their relationship. The rise-and-fall of the pairing forms the crux of the latest Zee5 docu-series ‘Break Point’ which airs from 1 October.
Directed by Ashwini Iyer-Tiwari and Nitesh Tiwari whose previous notable work includes ‘Panga’ and ‘Dangal’. They’ve continued the perfect job of finding synergy between archival footage, old photos and speaking to relevant people within their ecosystem. The makers have gone to great lengths to speak to journalists, rivals (Mike and Bob Bryan, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde), partners (Radek Stepanek, Martina Hingis, Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna etc.), friends, family (Dr Vece Paes, Jennifer Paes, Krishna Bhupathi, Mira Bhupathi, Kavitha Bhupathi) and coaches.
The seven-part series brings to the fore their meteoric rise during the cricket-mad India during the 1990s. So much so, Paes-Bhupathi shot a commercial alongside former England batsman Sir Geoffrey Boycott with the duo playing cricket. That alone highlights their importance to advertisers at a time when cricket was the be-all and end-all of brand associations.
But it is their festering differences from 1996 to 2001 (or beyond) that is the recurring theme of this series. The hunt for the ‘Break Point,’ if you will, for a partnership that is still unsure of what, if any, was the single decisive point behind their split. Unlike Hindi sports biopics or non-fiction content on such topics which tend to go over the top, the makers have squarely kept the focus on bringing out the persona and characters of Paes and Bhupathi.
Based on extensive research, well-pointed questions and detailed interviews with the protagonists, friends, family and coaches, coupled with viewpoints from people in the tennis world, the differences between “The Indian Express” are shared by all concerned.
The series tries to figure how a pairing that played its first in Jakarta; that shared a room and sneakily the access at Wimbledon’s All England Club; that shared numerous hours together on and off the court could reach a point where the pair would not even speak to each other.
The series takes a chronological approach to the Lee-Hesh partnership by focusing on their start in tennis in the first episode including a higher-ranked Paes’ decision to partner with Bhupathi — contrary to everyone’s suggestion.
‘I wanted to be an Olympic Champion, I wanted to be win Wimbledon’ – Leander.
He was an inspiration for all, and for Mahesh as well, but what went wrong?
Watch the untold story of Leander and Mahesh on #BREAKPOINT premieres only on #ZEE5 pic.twitter.com/4iwvBGym24
— ZEE5 (@ZEE5India) September 28, 2021
The second episode highlights their eye-raising performances against the Woodies at the Atalanta Olympics (where Paes won a bronze medal in singles), against Netherlands in Davis Cup in Jaipur where Bhupathi won a decisive fifth rubber but in the grand scheme of things, it is also where the seeds of what became a rather public fallout were sown.
At 1997 French Open, Bhupathi became India’s first Grand Slam champion having partnered Japan’s Rika Hiraki to the title. It brought about adulation for Bhupathi and, per Mahesh, a cold response from Paes. Leander would state at the end of the episode: “It was the human psychology, the chalupanti, the keeda” regarding the rumours that he wasn’t pleased for Bhupathi.
This “keeda“, as Paes calls it, becomes a crucial point in their mistrust going forward despite the success on the court. And that triumph, long time coming, finally arrived in 1999. In that year, the Lee-Hesh pairing reached the final of all four Grand Slams winning two (French Open and Wimbledon). They were the highest-ranked team. It seemed like a pairing destined for greatness. On the court they were going through plenty of success but off it, they were hardly conversing.
Shot 1 🎬 Take 1 and action!
Watch our friends & family of unravel their off-court journey only on #BREAKPOINT
Premieres October 1st only on@Leander @ashwinyiyer @niteshtiwari22 @earthskynotes @zee5global #BromanceToBreakUp @mirzaSania @rohanbopanna @MarkWoodforde @mhingis pic.twitter.com/ggWLtJy6Vd
— Mahesh Bhupathi (@Maheshbhupathi) September 23, 2021
The third and fourth episodes go into detail of the sacrifices both made for each other and to make things work. Paes let go of his singles sponsorship to get Bhupathi a better deal. Bhupathi let go of long-time coach Enrico Piperno on Paes’ insistence. It also details their success at Roland Garros in Paris and Wimbledon where Bhupathi played with a tear in his groin.
A poignant moment in the series, and their partnership, is when both are queried how they were achieving success despite barely speaking. “Rollercoaster. Hot-and-cold-. Unique. Unexplainable. I think it’s something no one can answer. I think it came down to the chemistry we had on the tennis court,” said Bhupathi.
Paes, meanwhile, said, “With so much pressure, on winning, the expectations, results, lack of communication, from team coming apart at the seams. It is a very strange experience.”
It was in Indianapolis, at the end of the year, when it all came apart. After mixed messages from both sets of players and teams, Paes and Bhupathi played with different partners. “That was the episode that broke the camel’s back. I was physically and mentally checked out of the relationship after that,” said Bhupathi on how things unravelled at the RCA Championships.
Mid-2000, following yet another heart-to-heart, but not without putting ego aside, the team that won a record 24 consecutive Davis Cup matches, decided to part ways. It was at this moment that a fragile relationship became murky with Paes believing Bhupathi was close to an unnamed woman he was seeing. “Then I think this is more broken than I thought it was,” recalled Bhupathi telling Paes as part of the interview process.
They would continue to play on-and-off for India in the Davis Cup, try to forge a partnership in 2011 on the men’s tour (ATP) but the relationship was seemingly beyond repair.
For Paes, the series is an attempt at exorcising the demons with Bhupathi over the last two decades. He told Firstpost, “I think it’s more like healing. I think the way we were able to address certain issues around 20 years later, that we could maybe laugh about. Where we’re able to look at archival footage and look at our body language and the looks that we’re giving each other, that maybe if we would have done in 1999-2000, we would have communicated better. We might have played a little longer, who knows,” Paes says.