Leander Paes received his Arjuna Award 25 years ago and it is 17 years since he was bestowed the nation's highest sports award, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna. He is the oldest player to have won a Grand Slam title at 41. One can go on and on listing his would-you-believe-it achievements. At 41, age is only a number for him and says he learnt it from one of his unending list of doubles partners, the legendary Martina Navratilova.
He might perhaps like to emulate her, winning a Grand Slam title at 50! He already has eight doubles and six mixed doubles titles. Plus the Olympic bronze from Atlanta. He is no longer after accolades, he insists, he now wants to enjoy his tennis and entertain his fans as long as his body and mind carry him. Yet, when he turns out for India he gets emotional, more so when he leads the country to victory in Davis Cup. He came very close to pulling off another great victory against Serbia over the weekend.
His doubles victory with Rohan Bopanna inspired Somdev Devvarman to punch above his weight to take the tie into fifth rubber in which young Yuki Bhambri did not have the game or the temperament to do a Paes.
India were left with a fighting 2-3 verdict, coming so close and yet so far.
The entertainer par excellence still retains the boyish look and enthusiasm of a 12-year-old who came to Delhi for the first time with his Olympian father Vece Paes to play in the national sub-junior championships. For all his experience of a hockey player and a practicing medical doctor in good old Calcutta, Vece looked nervous whenever we discussed Paes's tennis future. Not that he had any doubts about his ability, but he was not sure whether he would pursue tennis since he was dabbling in other sports, too.
It was understandable as Vece played hockey at the highest level, his wife Jennifer captained India in basketball and the family lived in a football mad city for Paes to have distractions. With a little more sniff of the Maidan, he would have turned out for Mohun Bagan or East Bengal. Any other sport he wouldn't have been playing into his 40s.
Vece did not have to wait for long for the answer, Paes decided to stick with tennis and in four years the stocky youngster was rushed into a Davis Cup tie by that shrewd reader of the game and players, Naresh Kumar. Paes was paired with Zeeshan Ali, the present coach of Davis Cup squad, and the two won the doubles against Japan in Chandigarh. After that, there was no looking back. His remarkable achievements make him easily India's most enduring tennis player.
Ramanthan Krishnan, Amritrajs Vijay and Anand and Ramesh Krishnan have room at the top and Leander, too, has his place there. And so has, in his company, Mahesh Bhupathi as his doubles partner.
Many top Indian sportspersons swear by the national flag and feel the need to wear their patriotism on their sleeve. Paes, too, makes no secret of it and it is that fervor that eggs him on. Someone who has won Grand Slam titles in three different decades, Paes also has a fabulous Davis Cup record with quite a few fantastic results in singles, the best of them all being the one over Croat Goran Ivanisevic, the coach of the 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic at the National Sports Club of India courts.
After losing the first two sets to the Croatian, Paes was down 0-3 in the third set, serving 30-40. People started leaving conceding the tie straight. They would have realised what they missed after some five hours and 38 minutes when the Indian champion served out the match.
Leander puts this victory up there and that's saying something for a guy who has quite a few wonderful winning moments to remember, particularly in the company of Ramesh to keep India in the World Group for close to a decade. Yet, he insists he is not a talented player because he lacks in inches to be a big player and he also feels his backhand play is a chink in his armour. Whatever be his faults, he makes up with his unbelievable dedication, determination and sheer hard work.
Indian sport certainly could do with a few more Leanders.