When the stars came calling with an ace to offer

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Kolkata, Sep 18 (UNI) When Baichung Bhutia raced to the net to slice a forehand from Sachin Tendulkar and jogged back with his hands in air, the competitiveness was that of a Grand Slam final, but the smiles gave all of it away.

It just couldn't get better than this. When three of the country's top sporting icons come together with a glamour lady of tennis for a fun game, you could expect nothing but sparks.

The veritable god of cricket Sachin Tendulkar and pin-up boy of Indian soccer Baichung Bhutia put on their shorts and picked up the tennis racquet for a game of mixed doubles with regulars on the circuit, Mahesh Bhupathi and Maria Kirilenko.

For an icing on the cake, Sania Mirza crooned perched atop the chair-umpire's seat.

Sachin, who has a fetish for racquet sports, was obviously waiting for moment. He saw the funny side of it and when quizzed by a scribe, he joked, ''I have been practicing hard.

There has been a lot of planning'' and then added after a short pause, ''I even had sleepless nights.'' Perhaps he had, at least his first serves indicated so.

They were hard, when they landed. Then there was a drop shot with a heavy back-spin that had Bhupathi scampering to return.

Sachin partnered the newest glam-babe of world tennis Kirilenko, while Mahesh had Baichung as his mate.

The talismanic footballer, who plays the bigger ball better, walked into the court and straightaway got into doing some stretching exercise of the legs and back.

He was quite stiff to begin with and looked as if he would have been more comfortable using his feet. But it was such a treat to see some of his returns later, even challenging a line call and throwing the racquet. Sania called out, ''Racquet abuse Mr Bhutia!'' ''I have never played a tennis match before, but after today, I think I'll take this game seriously now on. Maybe next time you see me I will be partnering Mahesh in Wimbledon,'' Baichung said later.

It's a pity that it wasn't a full house at the Netaji Indoor Stadium when a rally lasted around 12 shots. That was in the third game of the four-game exhibition match. Baichung was returning well by then and Kirilenko, who had initially seemed a bit uncomfortable, playing with 'unknown' people, had relaxed enough to become a part of the fun. In fact, Sachin's infectious smile seemed to be rubbing off on her, as the Russian lady laughed with him and applauded with the crowd.

''When I was young, I was a John McEnroe fan,'' Sachin said.

''I used to go around with head bands, hoping someone would call me McEnroe.'' However, it was Baichung who showed McEnroe-like traits, disputing a line-call till Sania said: ''I am the boss.'' She was the boss too when she censured Bhupathi for making hard returns to Sachin.

Later, she confessed she was ''a bit biased'' towards Sachin.

The cricketing icon is also a Pete Sampras fan, but finds Roger Federer equally amazing. ''I follow tennis, particularly where Leander, Mahesh and Sania play,'' he said. ''It's all about keeping the tri-colour flying and I feel proud and honoured when they do well.'' Baichung was surely the most improved player over the span of four games. He started off with a simple forehand return that almost landed in the stands. By the third game, he was making backhand returns that would have made Bhupathi proud. Perhaps, he had too much faith in himself when he leaped at the net for high ball. The rocket-like shot landed into the net and had Bhupathi holding his head in disbelief.

Sachin had expressed a wish to try out Sania's smashing forehand.

The lady, obliged after the match. However, the wrist did not quite permit hard shots.

The match did have a winner, 3-1 in favour of Sachin and Maria, but then who cares. On Tuesday evening it was a win-win situation for the crowd, the icons and tennis of course!! UNI

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