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Can champion duo's reunion spark an Indian tennis boom?

By Helen Chandler, CNN
  • Indian doubles pairing Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are reuniting after nine years apart
  • The duo want tennis to be more accessible for ordinary Indians
  • More than 1.5 million Indians now play tennis compared to just 5,000 in 1980
  • It is hoped the pair's return will inspire even more people to pick up a racket

(CNN) -- In a country with more than a billion people, where the World Bank estimates that 80% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, tennis is a luxury few Indians can afford.

Perceived as elitist and expensive, the country's average $820 yearly wage would not even stretch to a month of coaching in one of India's top tennis academies.

But two of its most famous players -- the doubles pairing of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes -- hope to bring the sport to the masses as they join forces again next month after nine years apart.

Tennis is a relatively young sport on the sub-continent, where the Amritraj brothers Vijay, Anand and Ashok were among India's first professional players in the early 1970s.

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Tennis clubs are reserved for the rich, and public facilities are few and far between, so the cricket-mad nation didn't take much notice until Bhupathi and Paes stormed onto the international stage by winning the first of three grand slam titles together at the French Open in 1999.

When we did well there were kids who wanted to play so I'm sure if we do well there will be more
--Mahesh Bhupathi
  • India
  • Leander Paes
  • Mahesh Bhupathi
  • Sania Mirza
  • Tennis

They split up in 2001 amid rumors of acrimony that neither have commented on, but achieved continued success with other partners, while the likes of Sania Mirza, Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna have followed up their good work.

And following India's hosting of a Davis Cup tie in Chennai in September, not to mention the sport's debut at the Delhi Commonwealth Games in October, the profile of Indian tennis has never been higher.

However, Bhupathi believes tennis can still be made more accessible in his home country.

"We have to make changes in order for tennis to be less elite. It is tough to change that because we don't have the public court system in India," the 36-year-old told CNN.

"But some academies have a system where people, if they have the talent, even if they can't afford it, can play. Hopefully more and more academies will do that to encourage people to take up the sport whatever their circumstances."

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Bhupathi and Paes hope they can inspire more Indians to take up tennis by sealing their legacy when they reunite at the Australian Open in January, seeking the one men's doubles major that eludes them.

"I think when Leander and myself were doing very well in the late Nineties, a lot of kids started playing the game," Bhupathi said. " And I'm sure if we do well again there will be more."

Just 5,000 people played tennis in 1980, according to the All India Tennis Association. Now the country boasts 15,000 registered adult players, 40,000 juniors and more than 1.5 million people participating in the sport on a regular basis.

Those figures should improve further if Bhupathi and Paes succeed in Melbourne next month.

When you have role models it creates excitement, it gets more people interested in the game
--Suresh Menon, ITF

"They have always had a very big fan following," Krishna Ramesh of Delhi-based sports website The Sports Campus told CNN. "Their reunion is long overdue and it will definitely increase interest in the sport in India."

Suresh Menon, the International Tennis Federation's development officer for Asia, believes the growth of tennis in India over the last 20 years is down to the success of its top players.

"When you have role models it creates excitement, it gets more people interested in the game and they are more likely to participate because you have got someone to look up to," he told CNN.

"You can see the success of Indian and other Asian players, and that has been a catalyst. It is kind of a cycle that leads to all areas of the game improving."

Following in the footsteps of Bhupathi and Paes, the 25-year-old Devvarman broke into the top 100 this year on his way to claiming gold medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Former world number 18 Mirza also got on the podium at both events.

Doubles specialist Bopanna reached the final of the U.S. Open in September with Pakistani partner Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, and also helped his country secure a place in the top-tier of the Davis Cup teams competition.

And the future of Indian tennis lies with 18-year-old Yuki Bhambri, who won the Australian Open boys' junior title in 2009 and is now attempting to make the transition to the senior tour.

"The trouble in the past was that there was not a wave of players being produced. Personalities appear and then there is no follow-up with new blood," Menon said.

"Like anything it takes a bit of a dive when there is no-one to look up to, but hopefully this is now starting to change."