Winning a Grand Slam is the ultimate dream for professional tennis players. The level of competition, the history, and the scrutiny and pressure that accompany it makes the task challenging and hence success is sweeter.
The four Indian tennis players have all been doubles specialists in their prime and the first Indian to win a Grand Slam tournament was Mahesh Bhupathi, who won the 1997 French Open mixed doubles with Japan’s Rika Hiraki.
The Bhupathi-Hiraki duo was the final seeded pair to enter the main draw – so they were literally rank outsiders to win the title. Moreover, they had not even played together.
A chance meeting
The 1997 French Open was set to be Mahesh Bhupathi’s mixed doubles debut at a Grand Slam and it almost did not happen.
On the eve of the deadline for players to enter their names for the main draw, Mahesh Bhupathi was still looking for a partner.
As it turned out, Rika Hiraki was also in search for one after her original partner, Satoshi Iwabuchi had to pull out due to scheduling conflicts. It was pure luck that Bhupathi and Hiraki ran into each other.
“We had walked past each other in the players’ lounge but then he turned around and asked me if I was looking for a doubles partner,” Hiraki recalled in an interview with The Indian Express.
“That was probably the only conversation we had before we met on the court for our first game a week later.”
They had a mammoth task ahead of them to even compete and probably neither of them expected to go all the way.
“We were the last team to get into the draw because Hiraki was ranked No. 30 and I was ranked No. 52,” Mahesh Bhupathi told fellow tennis player Purav Raja years later.
Bhupathi-Hiraki were drawn in the bottom half at the French Open and were given a bye in the first round. The Indo-Japanese duo’s first main draw match came against Kristine Kunce and Scott Davis in the second round.
The first set played out exactly how it was expected of a pair who had not played with each other before.
Bhupathi-Hiraki lost the set 6-2 and they did not communicate much on court.
"We weren't talking much in our first ever set together. When we were 5-2 down, I saw a team in the adjoining court chatting between points and coordinating,” said Hiraki.
“Mahesh was very quiet, so I thought he was angry. But when I approached him, he told me this was his first mixed doubles tournament. He was just as nervous as I was,” - Rika Hiraki laughed.
The Indo-Japanese pair recovered soon enough though and co-ordinated well to take the second set 6-2 and force a decider. The final set ran long as each team tried to outdo the other but Bhupathi-Hiraki prevailed 9-7.
The third set showed Bhupathi-Hiraki’s steely resolve and boosted the confidence in each other’s skills.
It helped them claim their first big scalp of the tournament as Bhupathi-Hiraki rode on the confidence to beat sixth seeds Alexandra Fusai and David Adams 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 in the third round.
Big guns conquered
Both pairs had had starkly similar campaigns until then – they had ground out three-set wins in the second and third rounds before being dominant in straight sets in the quarter-finals. On paper, Suk and Sukova were overwhelming favourites.
However, the underdog tag had never bothered Bhupathi-Hiraki before and it did not matter now.
Mahesh Bhupathi’s notoriously quick serves and strong shots from the baseline complemented Rika Hiraki’s groundstrokes as the Indo-Japanese duo claimed a famous 6-4, 6-4 victory. They were one step away from history.
The final pitted Bhupathi-Hiraki against American top seeds Lisa Raymond and Patrick Galbraith – who had won their first Grand Slam together at the 1996 US Open.
By now, everyone knew the script and Bhupathi-Hiraki teamed up to beat their highly-rated opponents 6-4, 6-1 on the clay courts to win their maiden Grand Slam mixed doubles title.
It made Mahesh Bhupathi the first Indian Grand Slam winner and Rika Hiraki the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam in 22 years.
It was a little more special for Mahesh Bhupathi as the French Open title had come on June 7, 1997 – his 23rd birthday.
Mahesh Bhupathi and Rika Hiraki then teamed up for two more Grand Slams – the 1997 Wimbledon and 1997 US Open – but were eliminated in the third and first rounds, respectively.
The duo parted ways after that as Bhupathi and his new coach decided to play with a different partner.
As it turned out, the win was Rika Hiraki’s only Grand Slam title of her career as she decided to hang up her racquet in 2001 at the age of 30.
It was just the beginning of Mahesh Bhupathi’s decorated career though as he won 11 more Grand Slam titles – seven mixed doubles, including ones with legends like Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza, and four men’s doubles titles.
Mahesh Bhupathi also went on to represent India at five Olympics, three Asian Games, and one Commonwealth Games before retiring in 2014.