As the finish line beckons and the dream of the perfect end borders on reality, man can often get overawed by his own success and succumb to regrettable depths. On stray occasions, unfortunate Divine powers plot against his destiny, writing a script that goes awry wrong. The curtain draws upon the biggest stage but instead of ecstasy, it is despair which greets the tale.
Leander Paes set out to create history as he set foot on the soils of Rio de Janeiro hoping to replicate and better his finest achievement of the Olympic Bronze medal that he had earned in a tough single’s event twenty years ago. Playing his seventh Olympics, the most by any athlete in the history of the Games, Paes yearned for a glorious culmination to his career with yet another medal, which would beautifully culminate years of toil, sweat and hard work.
Plagued by unwanted controversies and chants of unprofessionalism, the story of Paes, which had promised to be a serious fairy-tale, wrapped itself around the shoulders of gloom sooner than it was expected. Partnering an almost unwilling Rohan Bopanna, the duo crashed out in the first round itself, losing in straight sets to the Polish pair of Lukaz Kubot and Marcin Matkowski, in a match which was defined by heightened levels of incoordination and lack of communication.
As the nation gasped in disbelief, angered at Bopanna’s conceit and the All India Tennis Association’s politics, Paes silently came to terms with a broken fantasy but not without revealing his interest in turning out for India in Tokyo, four years from now.
Controversies and unprofessionalism marked the Rio 2016 preparations
Right from the moment when Rohan Bopanna chose Sanketh Myneni as his preferred partner for the Games, one became aware of the unnecessary tangle that Indian tennis was getting into. After the AITA shot down Bopanna’s proposal, who was ranked higher than Paes after the Olympic deadline and had the right to choose his partner for the Men’s Doubles event, and decided instead to send the two most experienced players to Rio, it was the responsibility of the duo to set aside their differences for the country.
A forced resignation by Bopanna to play with a partner he would rather avoid set tones of impending doom but with Paes around, one only hoped of a miraculous advancement to the latter rounds.
Sans any practice session and probably without even a word or a glance exchanged, the Indians harboured thoughts of triumphs against worthy competitors. With certain sections of the media carrying reports of Paes not being given a room in the Games Village after he had allegedly refused to share one with Bopanna, a piece of news he immediately refuted, the atmosphere was tense with crippling issues between the two. Failing to overlook their conflicts for just ten days, Bopanna and Paes were eventually left bruised and wounded as they were unceremoniously knocked out.
The legacy of Leander Paes
It was sheer determination which saw Paes leave Kolkata as a teenager to sweat it out on the courts of the Britannia Amritraj Academy in Madras. Enamoured with the traits of grit, passion and excellent resilience, the 43-year-old soon became the personification of sheer hard work as he inspired a billion with his longevity and consistency. The craving to scale the pinnacles of success that defined the 14-year-old boy was transformed into an unquenched thirst to stay atop the peak even after trophies and medals started filling his cabinet.
Displaying commitment along the way, the Kolkatan snatched 18 Grand Slam titles and even accomplished the unique feat of partnering hundred doubles partners. Adapting in sync to their strengths and weaknesses and rallying around innumerable tennis courts in his extensive 25-year career; Paes has shown no signs of halting, aiming instead for twenty Grand Slams.
However, it is the tennis player that Paes converts to when he is representing India that has remained the focus throughout. Despite the accolades that came his way on the ATP circuit, the energy that ran and at times overflowed when wearing the Indian jersey was a sight that could never fail to motivate.
Raising his standards and chest bumping his way to hard-fought victories in the Davis Cup matches, with eyes tearing up as the chants of ‘India India’ reverberated around the court, Paes stood as a man of expressive patriotism. Taking part in the victory lap after every Davis Cup triumph with the Tiranga proudly wrapped over his shoulders, applauding each fan that supported his every serve remained an image that will go down in the archives.
The Olympic farewell that he never deserved
It was assured, almost even guaranteed that Paes would bring his excellence on the court when he stepped out in Rio. Waving the tricolour with childlike glee during the Opening Ceremony provided a mere preview into the fortnight that would follow. The perfect ending, however, was not to be.
Chants of unprofessionalism for landing in Brazil two days before his event was to get underway filled the air soon after. Vijay Amritraj’s views on how Paes’ mixed doubles feats account for nought due to its lack of competition came to mind. His lack of form in the doubles event was brought to the surface with his mixed doubles trophies being attributed to Martina Hingis. All that had been won was soon forgotten within moments of an exit which he did not deserve.
As Mahesh Bhupati dissected the loss, blaming the lack of adequate tournaments together in the lead up to the Games as a significant reason for the falter, Paes gauged the pain in isolation. He had failed to win a medal but moreover, he had failed his country.
Seated in his room in Rio, his mind must have raced back to the summer of 2003 when he sat crestfallen in the hospital room as doctors inspected a possible brain tumour, which threatened his hey-days on the court. His journey from the fatal illness thirteen years ago to being the first player to represent his country seven times on the world’s largest sporting spectacle has been marred with insane levels of challenges, obstacles and dominance. He fought back then, he will fight back again.
Having failed to replicate his dream of returning home with the yellow metal in no way reduces Paes’ aura or legacy. But the loss, it hurts. Not because of the arrogant politics that stole India a medal. Not because of the rubbish rumors that doubted his devotion. Not because Paes’ commitment to the nation was questioned. But because champions like him deserved to go out with a bang and not a whimper.