In the fourth episode of Break Point, a new limited series on Zee5 about the partnership of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, subject and form dovetail fleetingly. We cut between the two players as they describe the aftermath of their maiden Wimbledon doubles championship win. Paes complains that Bhupathi wasn’t in the stands to watch his mixed doubles semi-final game after. Bhupathi says he wanted to celebrate. We go back and forth between them, five or six times. It’s like watching a rally.
Break Point is at its best during exchanges like these. The seven-episode series, by Nitesh Tiwari (Dangal) and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (Panga), uses Paes’ and Bhupathi’s often-differing recollections – and those of their parents, friends, coaches and opponents – to tell the story of their rapid rise and equally rapid implosion. It has the feel of couples therapy: a long list of slights recalled and grievances aired, but also wistful memories of a time when the love was strong.
For Indian sports fans weaned on decades of self-effacing athletes, the brief reign of Paes-Bhupathi was an almost illicit thrill. Between 1999 and 2001, they won three Grand Slams and reached the finals of two others (there was a third finals loss, at the 2011 Australian Open, after they briefly reunited). In 1999, they were the first pair to reach four successive Grand Slam finals in one year since 1952. They were the number one doubles pair in the world, and the first men’s doubles Grand Slam winners from India (Bhupathi became India’s first Grand Slam winner at the 1997 French Open, partnering Rika Hiraki in mixed doubles). More than what they achieved, it was the manner in which they did it, playing an emotive, fetching brand of tennis, complete with a lot of yelling and their trademark chest bumps.
Of course, it didn’t last. The duo split in 2002, less than six years after they teamed up. That their partnership disintegrated just when they looked set to dominate men’s doubles for a long time is one of the great tragedies of Indian sport. It’s also the question Break Point sets out to answer. “I would never have believed the script would go so wrong,” says Rohit Brijnath, sports writer and Mint Lounge columnist, at the start of the first episode. “I thought they would last forever, like us,” says Mike Bryan, one half of the 13 Grand Slam-winning Bryan brothers. “I thought they were blood brothers. Obviously not.”
You can see the seeds of conflict as early as the second episode, when Bhupathi believes (or is encouraged to believe) that Paes is jealous of his French Open win with Hiraki. Disagreements pile up—over endorsements, over who looks silly in an ad, over support staff. By the time their golden year—1999—is drawing to a close, they’re communicating through their respective coaches. The show's biggest contribution, in an Indian context, is that it’s a sports story that’s unafraid of making its subjects seem petty, vain and unsure. Our sports films, especially the biopics, tend to be in awe of their protagonists, unable or unwilling to ask tough questions. Break Point is enamoured of Paes and Bhupathi, yet it turns a forensic eye on their weaknesses.
Despite all this, Break Point falls short of a greatness. It’s sentimental to a fault. The match footage is of varying quality. There’s a lot of repetition. The annoying score alternates between noisy guitar rock and weepy piano. The last hurrah of 2011 is ignored completely. I was waiting for Nitesh Tiwari to shift the blame onto some evil coach, as he did in Dangal. But there are no villains here, only young men driven apart by ego and insecurity.
Some of the best scenes are when the two dissect matches and points from years past. Paes talks a lot more than his reserved partner; I wouldn’t be surprised if the makers had just enough footage of Bhupathi speaking, but plenty of Paes to choose from. You can see why someone thought it was a good idea to cast Paes in a Hindi movie (Rajdhani Express, 2013). You can also see why it was a particularly bad movie.
Doubles tennis is a strange beast. You could be a great singles player paired with another and still not translate to a successful doubles team. Paes-Bhupathi had what Woodforde-Woodbridge and Bryan-Bryan did: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Paes, short, quick, mild serve; Bhupathi, big serve, not so quick, tall. It was a great marriage, which made the divorce particularly tough to swallow. Whether or not this coming together has been a cathartic experience for Leander and Mahesh, Indian tennis fans will likely be very glad to have their buttons pushed by the final scene.