Spirit of excellence

Leander Paes' undying determination has helped him defy age and accomplish the impossible

UNSTOPPABLE: Indian tennis veteran Leander Paes added another feather to his cap when he set a record of most number of doubles wins in Davis Cup. (DH Photo by Srikanta Sharma R)

If there is one sportsman who embodies the spirit of resilience, it is Leander Paes. The 44-year-old doubles exponent has defied odds, controversies, time and age to bring glory to the country. Over the years, the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in tennis, has scripted his own golden story. He has smashed records, created new ones, and he may even add some more in the future! For, Paes is limitless-in his passion and drive to accomplish the impossible.

These aren’t the best of the times for the Indian legend. The doubles standards in tennis have risen, the increasing years have mounted his challenge and after a long time he found himself dropped from the Davis Cup squad last year. His tied record of 42 Davis Cup wins with Italian great Nicola Pietrangeli was stubbornly intact for over two years. But when have setbacks served as deterrent for Paes? In the face of young blood snapping at his heels and calls for retirement gaining pitch, Paes has remained steadfast to bring the quality fit enough to replace him.

He was dropped from the two ties against Uzbekistan and Canada, but got an opportunity to play against China. Despite differences resurfacing with his once most successful doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi, who is now the India Davis Cup captain, Paes grabbed the opportunity. He might no longer be a top 10 player, but continues to be in top 50 bracket at 45, many a times grinding his way on the Challenger circuit.

So when the occasion presented itself, it was befitting the wait. India had unexpectedly slumped 0-2 against China in cold conditions of Tianjin, and the hopes hinged on Paes and Rohan Bopanna. Despite their off-court differences, the two fought with all their might to down Mao Xin Gong and Ze Zhang 5-7, 7-6(5), 7-6(3). Paes, who had begun his Davis Cup journey as a 16-year-old in 1990, finally notched the World record of 43 Davis Cup doubles wins. The win also triggered a wave of inspiration for the singles players and India, in a stunning fightback, went on to beat China 3-2.

That day exulting with Paes were also coach Zeeshan Ali, his first Davis Cup doubles partner, and Bhupathi, with whom he had ruled the doubles circuit in the late 1990s and weaved an unbeaten winning streak of 24 Davis Cup ties. “It took 29 years of hard grind to achieve this one. It’s been a fun journey and age is but just a number,” Paes had remarked in one his tweets.

Both Bhupathi and Zeeshan will vouch for the fervour which Paes carries with him while playing for the country.

“The enthusiasm with which he came into his first tie and the enthusiasm with which he came into this tie against China is practically the same. There are about 20-25 years in between but nothing has changed for him. He is the best Davis Cup player that India has ever produced,” Zeeshan acknowledged.

“You cannot have a world record if you are not passionate about playing for your country. More than anything else it was a huge relief for him to get this world record which he has been trying for a long time. He has gone through a lot to get to a point where he got the record and it has not come easy at all. It’s been quite a tough road but it’s been an incredible journey for an incredible player.”

His father, Dr Vece Paes, admired his competitive nature. “We gave Leander every possible support. He began playing sports early, and I must say he was a better football player than a tennis player! But then we chose tennis. What Leander had was the electrifying speed and immensely competitive nature. He is someone who likes to set goals and go after them. Over the years, he has been able to achieve some of them,” he said.

T Chandrasekaran, one of the coaches who trained Paes during formative days at the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy (BAT) in Chennai, always found him ahead of his times. He even believed he could have bettered singles career, where he achieved the ranking of 73.

“He was a very curious student and will pick the brains of coaches. He spoke from the heart. For his age, he was quite mature and sensible,” Chandrasekaran had said in the past. “He always was good at the net but few know that Leander had very good ground strokes. He was very attacking from the backcourt too. All the coaches believed that he had an all-round game and it could have gotten better.”

Zeeshan believes Paes’ accomplishment will be hard to match. ”His current record will be extremely hard to break. There is no guaranteed spot in Davis cup. You have to be among the best in either singles or doubles,” he said.

So do we see Paes playing his eighth Olympics? Dr Paes would not like to commit. “We will see how it goes, but Leander must be giving it a thought”

Zeeshan agreed. “A lot of tennis that he is now playing is all about setting records and there is no athlete ever that has participated in eight Olympics. I am absolutely sure that it is there at the back of his mind”

Knowing Paes, few would be surprised if he makes the cut for Tokyo Games. “Our country didn’t have too many sportspersons winning individual medals in 80s and 90s and as a child, it motivated me to start off the trend. Throughout my career, I have said that I love to motivate people,” Paes had said ahead of Rio Games.

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