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'Indian Express' races to men's doubles crown

PARIS -- From Grand Slam champions to
estranged buddies and back.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, nicknamed the "Indian
Express" of tennis, are on the rails again after winning the
French Open doubles title on the red clay of Roland Garros.

When they lifted the trophy after beating the 13th-seeded
Czech pair of Petr Pala and Pavel Vizner 7-6, 6-3 in the final on
Saturday, it marked the healing of wounds after their bitter
separation last year.

They also silenced critics who felt the former world No. 1 duo would not be able to win big matches again after
personal problems took their toll in a tumultuous 2000.

Paes and Bhupathi, who in 1999 won the Wimbledon and French
Open titles and became the first pair since 1952 to reach the
final of all Grand Slams in a year, broke up soon after because
of what media reports called misunderstandings and ego clashes.

Both drifted in their own direction, playing with different
partners but never matching the heights they scaled together.

After a frustrating few months they came back together just
before the Sydney Olympics but things were not as smooth as
before.

After a string of early losses, they realized they would
have to start building their relationship all over again.

Paes and Bhupathi embarked on their rollercoaster ride
together in 1996 when they realized they had an uncanny
chemistry while representing India in a Davis Cup tie. (India faces the United States in a Davis Cup tie in September.)

By then, Paes had already won an Olympic singles bronze at
Atlanta and was a Davis Cup domestic hero who still fancied big
things for himself in singles.

They decided to play out the Challenger circuit together as
an experiment but when the pair won half a dozen titles that
year, they realized they might be destined for greater success.

They took the ATP circuit by storm in 1997, winning six tour
doubles titles, more than anyone else including the Australian
"Woodies" of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, then the
world's No. 1 team.

By the end of 1998, they had added six more titles to their
collection and were hovering near the number one ranking but
were still failing to cross the last-four stage in the Grand
Slams.

They were getting restless.

Then came 1999 and they became the hottest property on the
doubles circuit. "Did you guys win, or is that a stupid
question?," John McEnroe asked them at the U.S. Open that year.

But it was success that started to pull them apart. Even
while they were toying with history in 1999, there was trouble
brewing between them.

They never discussed in public what really went wrong but
when they had to go through a small break in the offseason
after Bhupathi sustained a shoulder injury, they split up
without any announcement.

"It just happened," they said.

But few can deny they are a perfect match on and off the
court, largely because they are so different as players and
people.

Paes, 27, relies on his speed, agility and quick reflexes at
the net.

Bhupathi, who celebrated his 27th birthday on Thursday, is
as good but in a more traditional mould. He has a big serve, a
bigger service return and is far more reliable from the
baseline.

Off court, Paes is expressive while Bhupathi is laconic.

"I think we have great chemistry," Paes once said. "We can
sense what the other person is doing.

"I always know what Hesh (Mahesh) is thinking on court and
vice versa. I think that's amazing since we are so different
otherwise."

With their French Open triumph, the wheel of fortune has
really spun full circle for Paes and Bhupathi.

So what's next?

"Watch out Wimbledon, here we come," they said.