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Leander Paes - A champion who deserves to go out with a bang

As he begins his journey to stardom one last time in Rio, Paes deserves his final lap of hurrah.

Leander Paes
Leander Paes will be representing India at the Olympics for a record seventh time

A nation rejoiced teary-eyed as Sachin Tendulkar walked away with the prized World Cup in his sixth and final appearance in the tournament. Fans worldwide gathered in unison to applaud Kobe Bryant as he recorded a score of 60 in his last outing. Why is it that sports lovers in general yearn and endlessly hope that Roger Federer signs off from a stupendous tennis career with one more Grand Slam in his already enviable trophy cabinet?

The aura of Tendulkar would not have diminished that historical night in 2011 had he been on the wrong side of the result. If Federer is unsuccessful in glorifying his name in the Slams again, there is no doubt that the magnitude of his achievements will remain untarnished. Yet, the last hurrah is anticipated with bated breath. The final bow before the farewell for a sportsperson who has enthralled and mesmerized his fans for decades is expected to be as glorious as his career was.

Navigating through the triumphs and the disappointments to achieve a cult status in his chosen field, a legend, in the truest sense of the term, deserves to walk into the sunset with his head held high, culminating all the years of toil and hard work into his very last trophy, which will earmark his name in the history books for time immemorial.

And maybe that is the sole reason why it personally angered a nation of over a billion when Leander Paes was in danger of missing out from representing India one last time at his record seventh Olympic Games, that are to be held in Rio de Janiero later this year.

Being at loggerheads with Rohan Bopanna, who by virtue of being the highest ranked doubles player in India had the privilege to pick his partner for the Games, Paes faced a stiff competition from the existing political system prevalent in the All India Tennis Association (AITA) that threatened to end his Olympic dream even before the plane to Rio took off.

Not unexpectedly, courtesy their history of not seeing eye-to-eye on matters regarding Indian tennis, in a letter that was conveyed to the AITA on Friday, Bopanna preferred partnering Saketh Myneni over Paes, a decision that created ripples in the Indian sporting circuit.

Paes maintained a stoic silence on the matter until the AITA selectors disagreed with Bopanna’s choice, ultimately choosing the duo as the representatives of India in the Men’s Doubles Event. However, Paes misses out in the Mixed Doubles event as the Bangalorean partners Sania Mirza, a decision, which the AITA feels, has a greater chance of fetching a medal, keeping in mind the ranking of the two players along with their camaraderie and current form.

All’s well that ends well, they say. Yet, the very fact that Bopanna wanted to choose an unknown player over one of the great’s in the tennis fraternity highlights the underlying personal conflict, which was lurking to overshadow the main objective of fetching a medal for the country on the biggest stage.  

The lack of trust in Paes over the years

Leander Paes

So what made Bopanna initially choose a 125 ranked Myneni over an Olympic Medalist? Paes, the winner of 18 Grand Slams (the most recent being the French Open title with Martina Hingis) had to face tense moments before the AITA met on Saturday, unable to gauge why a player who has just a few Davis Cup appearances and some sporadic Challenger performances was going to be chosen ahead of him.

The news of alienating Paes, however, remains a story of folklore, dating back to 2008 when the members of the Indian Davis Cup team had asked for his ouster as captain. Led by Mahesh Bhupathi, Prakash Amritraj and Bopanna revolted against Paes, who resigned from his post in due subsequence.

However, it was before the 2012 London Olympics that mudslinging hit the AITA shores, as both Bhupathi and Bopanna refused to partner Paes in the double’s event. To pacify the veteran, he was partnered with Mirza in the Mixed Double’s, a move which was met with strong displeasure from the Hyderabadi.

Sans a few Davis Cup matches, the Indian contingent has kept Paes away from their discussions, which has led to talks and debates in national media over the sudden rebellion of a bunch of stars towards the record holding player. 

Maybe Paes was aware that Bopanna would go in for in a name other than him and hence would categorically mention since the beginning of the year in all his interviews that the duo were the best bet to win the nation a medal, even if other players differed with their opinion. Displeased at how the circumstances turned out four years ago, Paes was hopeful that a rerun of the ugly saga could have been spared this time around.

Knowing that he would be made a scapegoat in the midst of personal bickering, the 42-year-old, who has time and again made his intention of not only competing but also bringing home the coveted medal in probably his last Olympics, must have heaved a sigh of relief at Anil Khanna’s decision.

The professional statement from Bopanna

As Bopanna became the villain in India for snubbing a legend for allegedly his own selfish motifs, a strongly worded letter was forwarded to the association, in which he was forthright about his reasons for picking Myneni. Here is what Bopanna’s statement read:

Based on my ranking, I had earned the privilege offered to the top 10 players in the world, to make a preferred nomination of doubles partner for the Men’s Doubles which I could forward to AITA for their endorsement. Following due process, I sent my nomination to AITA with an explanation of my reasoning. The relevant extract of my communication to the AITA is below:

“I have chosen Saketh based on a careful weighing of whose game will complement mine at Rio, given my own skills, strengths and weaknesses. As you will see from my track record, I have consistently had success with partners who have big weapons, a serve, a forehand. In that sense, the ranking of the player in doubles is far less important than what he brings to the partnership. I have played with over 70 partners in my career and that has given me the ability to gauge what type of player works well with me and what doesn’t.

I have much admiration for Leander Paes and his many achievements, but unfortunately we have not been able to put together a good combination despite our best efforts and I do not believe our styles of play are either compatible or complementary. Considering that this is a team event where two individuals need to gel together to do well, regardless of individual achievements, it is the team and the combination that matters.”

The AITA Selection Committee has now made its decision after due consideration of my representation and has selected the team for the Olympics. I respect this decision and look forward to participating in Rio.

Stating that his style of play refuses to complement Paes’, the 6ft 3in player, gave a clear signal that instead of putting self before the country, as talks had been floating around, his decision was based purely on professional logistics and explanations. Having been on the circuit for a considerable number of years with knowledge of his own game, Bopanna mentioned that Paes’ comparatively weak return of serve made him a liability as a partner.

On pure tennis terms, his words made definite sense as he looked to highlight the flaws and shortcomings of the legendary player, choosing an inexperienced campaigner instead who complimented his game, but Bopanna’s failure to get an insight into what Paes brings to the table further enhanced the silliness of his decision in the first place.

Paes: the epitome of human success

Leander Paes

Recently Vijay Amritraj slammed the Kolkatan for “unnecessarily prolonging his career”, giving no importance to his recent vein of rich form, saying that the double’s event has earned a lacklustre spot in the tennis circuit. The news might have been disheartening for Paes, but at an age when sportsmen have long hung their boots and are admiring the upcoming talent from the luxuries of the four walls, Paes continues to defy the laws of age, churning out Grand Slam winning performances at will. 

Defining human passion and taking them to new levels, Paes remains the oldest man to have won a Slam. Bopanna did indirectly criticize his style of play, but refused to see beyond, into the depths of experience which the Anglo-Catholic has to offer. Having played with over hundred Men’s Doubles partners on the circuit in the last twenty-seven years, Paes has become the epitome of adaptability, adjusting and moulding his game in accordance to his partner’s.

As Bopanna, and a few others, spoke about the lack of chemistry between the duo as a reason for them not doing well in the upcoming Games, well, one need to look no further than the enchanting night at Bangalore in 2014, when the pair won a lost Davis Cup game against Serbia. Tiding over a two-set deficit, magic was created as the chest bumps made an entry onto the court in a tough, emotionally draining encounter.

If playing for the tricolour on the sporting world’s largest stage fails to invoke such passion, where a player’s weakness transforms into his biggest strength, where all rifts ace away like the tennis ball, then well, the players in question have a lot of introspection to indulge in.

With Bopanna being a strong right court player and Paes a left court one, all differences and issues can be dissolved, if not for a lifetime, then at least for a matter of ten days when the Games get underway in August. It remains to be seen how a disgruntled Bopanna, having been denied the partner of his choice, tides over his frustration to keep aside his well-hidden but omnipresent differences with Paes to churn out a tournament worth remembering.

Meanwhile, from the 42-year-old young player, expect nothing but an overdose of passion, an insatiable hunger and an overwhelming sense of motivation as he begins his journey to stardom a final time in Rio. Reeking of crazy childlike glee with a peaceful maturity, Paes deserves his final lap of hurrah. Hopefully, he can bring in all his devouring skills to use a final time, because champions, they deserve to go out with a bang and not a whimper. 

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