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The Donald Trump of Men's Tennis

Roland Garros 2008

Bhupathi and KnowlesATPMahesh Bhupathi (left) is as busy off court as he is on it with partner Mark Knowles.

If Mahesh Bhupathi is the Donald Trump of Men's Tennis, does that make Mark Knowles his apprentice?

Mahesh Bhupathi is nothing if not a multi-tasker. Having just finished lunch in the players’ restaurant at the Monte-Carlo Country Club, the doubles-star-turned-entrepreneur concludes a business meeting and then greets his doubles partner Mark Knowles for a pre-arranged interview with DEUCE.

It’s a combined interview, so when it’s time for Knowles to speak, Bhupathi reaches for his BlackBerry and fires off quick emails before being rejoining the conversation. For Knowles, this is nothing new.

“I don’t take it personally,” he says of Bhupathi’s BlackBerry addiction. “One of my best friends is Jim Courier, who also has started his own sports and entertainment company. When we go to dinner he maybe says four words. He’s texting the whole time on the phone and I’m wondering why we’ve gone to dinner. It’s pretty similar with ‘Hesh. But I understand he’s friends and partners with some big players in this world.”

Bhupathi (pronounced BOO-pat-ee) is the managing director of Globosport, an Indian company he founded five years ago that has grown into a sports and entertainment powerhouse that employs 60 people. Globosport manages tennis and entertainment events, Bollywood celebrities and sporting stars, including India’s No. 1 WTA player, Sania Mirza, who was one of Bhupathi’s first clients.

“I’m never far from my BlackBerry, but at home I have a great team working for me and they are well versed in what needs to be done. My role is relationship building at the highest level,” Bhupathi says. “I probably spend a couple of hours a day online replying to emails. When I’m home the business takes over… I don’t get time to hit. But luckily when I leave for a tournament it only takes 2-3 days of practice and I’m ready.

“I know tennis isn’t going to last forever. But I really love doing what I do and for now it’s my first priority. Globosport is going to be my life after tennis.”

Although Bhupathi’s business interests boomed in recent years, his returns on the court had not met analysts’ expectations. The former World No. 1, who in 1999 reached all four Grand Slam doubles finals with countryman Leander Paes (winning Roland Garros and Wimbledon), won just five titles in three seasons from 2005-2007. Not necessarily a disaster, but hardly satisfying for a player who owns 43 career titles.

Bhupathi had a couple of bad breaks along the way. In 2005 he teamed with doubles titles world record holder Todd Woodbridge only to see the Aussie retire midway through the season, and in 2007 his promising partnership with Radek Stepanek ended when the Czech decided to concentrate more on singles. In between, Bhupathi found himself teaming with a wide range of players boasting far lighter doubles resumes than his own. He teamed with eight different partners in the last nine events he played in 2007.

“It wasn’t an ideal situation, so this has been a great opportunity to team with Mark. I had the hunger to do well after a couple of years of mixing and matching with various people. For 2 ½ years I’ve had partnerships that for various reasons haven’t worked out and it’s refreshing to be able to play the whole year with one partner.”

In contrast, Knowles was coming out of a long relationship with Daniel Nestor, who early in 2007 announced that he intended to team with Nenad Zimonjic. Soon after that announcement Knowles and Nestor were surprise winners at the French Open, which led them to extend their partnership to the US Open. But during that period Knowles knew he had to find a partner for the post-US Open period and 2008.

“I was looking for a great ad court player and someone who I felt I could have a lot of fun with. Mahesh was at the top of my list,” Knowles said.

Unfortunately, the Bhupathi-Knowles partnership did not come into being as planned after the US Open. In October Bhupathi underwent lower back surgery in Melbourne, Australia, where Bhupathi’s surgeon of choice works. The immediate post-op recovery saw Bhupathi confined to his hospital bed for the best part of a month thousands of miles from his friends, family – and business headquarters. (Knowles re-united with Nestor for one event at season’s end, winning the prestigious Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.)

So it was with great anticipation and delight when the 2008 season began and Bhupathi and Knowles finally took to the court as a team. In just their second outing, the Indians took out two-time defending champions and World No. 1 team Bob and Mike Bryan to reach the Australian Open semifinals. Little more than one month later they won back-to-back titles in Memphis and Dubai.

“Our games complement each other well,” Bhupathi says. “The question was always going to be ‘Is the chemistry going to be there?’ and clearly it is. We’re both very hungry to win.”

Bhupathi, who turns 34 in June, and Knowles, 36, then reached consecutive ATP Masters Series finals in Miami (l. Bryan/Bryan) and Monte-Carlo, where their loss to Spaniards Tommy Robredo and Rafael Nadal was a double blow. First, Bhupathi and Knowles would have become the new leaders of the Stanford ATP Doubles Race had they won the final. Second, Bhupathi injured his groin late in the second set and basically played out the final three games on one good leg. (Nadal became just the second player in ATP Masters Series history – since 1990 – to win the singles and doubles titles at the same Masters Series event.)

Monte-Carlo was also memorable as Bhupathi clinched his 500th career doubles victory. Knowles, who has 49 career titles, topped 600 match wins last year.

Scott Davidoff, who coaches Bhupathi and Knowles, said that the team’s success this season is due in large part to Bhupathi’s determination to make up for three modest seasons between 2005-07.

“His lack of success in recent years has absolutely made him determined to get back to the top of the game. He knows what he can do out here and that’s pushing him to get back to where he wants to be,” Davidoff says. “Teaming with a great player like Mark has been key, and they are both great friends, which is san important part of the chemistry.

“Part of my role is to make sure Mahesh keeps his focus on tennis, because he has so much else going on. I’ve almost thrown the BlackBerry away a few times at practice… but when he’s the managing director of a company than employs 60 people, and when he’s paying my salary, it’s not easy to do.”

For his part, Knowles doesn’t question Bhupathi’s commitment or focus, and indeed welcomes partnering with a man known for his insightfulness and business acumen.

“Mahesh is a very astute businessman and he’s given me some really good advice with stocks. (Laughing) They are highly, highly confidential. He’s a very dynamic individual and when we are together on tour we can talk about various things in life, so it’s exciting, not all tennis.

“So it’s interesting to see what Mahesh is doing. It’s a tough balance juggling all that but he’s been so focused this year on the court and it’s shown in the results.”

Although Knowles runs his successful charity tennis event each December in Nassau, it’s fair to say that the soon-to-be father of two from the sleepy Bahamas lives life at a different pace to Bhupathi, based in Bangalore in the central south of India, a country that is now a powerful driving force in the global economy. While Bhupathi is at home cutting deals and signing his next superstar client, Knowles is likely spear fishing or hitting balls with his son, Graham.

“I’m pretty much a small fish compared to Mahesh,” Knowles said. “He’s the Donald Trump, I’m the pigeon. But I enjoy my charity event at the end of the year, which gives back to the children of the Bahamas. I have a 2 ½ year old son and another on the way, so that keeps me pretty focused. That’s a business in itself.

“While Mahesh and I may be different in many ways, we are both focused on winning and enjoying what we’re doing. Winning is paramount, but for me it’s also about having fun. I enjoy trying to improve week to week and I think that I am still learning the game, which sounds shocking, given how much time I have devoted to the game.

“It’s a lot more fun if you’re winning. If we continue to improve and play well then the other things will fall into place, whether it be the Masters Cup in Shanghai, winning big titles or possibly contending for No. 1.”

And if all that happens, Knowles won’t have to look far to find an agent to manage his affairs.

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