Leander Paes, the name evokes national pride, is one of the greatest sportspersons in India's sporting history. His biggest achievement undoubtedly was the Olympic bronze medal he bagged in the men's singles event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Leander holds the Indian record of having won the most Grand Slam titles with 18 titles to his name, 8 in men's doubles and 4 in mixed doubles. He has won the career Grand Slam, title wins at all the 4 tennis majors - Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, in both the men's doubles and mixed doubles events.
But his greatest wins have come in the Davis Cup where he is known to raise his game several notches while representing the country. While his 45 victories in doubles is an all-time Davis Cup record, it is in singles that he has punched above his weight to fetch some glorious upset wins for India.
While on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) circuit he has had a few big singles victories like the one against Pete Sampras at the New Haven ATP tournament, he has had more major scalps to his credit while playing for India in the Davis Cup.
With Leander in his final year on the ATP tour, let us have a look at 5 such great performances by the 1997 Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna awardee in the Davis Cup.
#5 India vs Czech Republic - 1997
India faced the Czech Republic in the Davis Cup World Group 1st Round away tie at Pribram, Czech Republic from 7th to 9th February 1997. The tie was played on a clay court, not regarded as one of Leander's favorite surfaces.
The Czech team was considered the outright favorites with the presence of World No. 33 Petr Korda and World No. 67 Jiri Novak in their ranks while Leander Paes at World No. 105 and Mahesh Bhupathi at World No. 478 were the highest-ranked Indian singles players.
The tie did not begin on a bright note for India with Korda prevailing 6-3, 6-7, 6-1, 6-2 over Bhupathi despite the good fight put up by the Indian, especially in the second set. It was now down to Paes and he did not let the team down by upsetting the higher-ranked Novak 6-2, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 to draw parity in the tie.
Paes and Bhupathi combined brilliantly on the second day of the tie to down the Czech pairing of Korda and Martin Damm 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 to give India a 2-1 lead going into the last day of the tie.
Paes started brilliantly on the final day by winning the first set against the clay-court specialist Korda but he could not maintain the momentum and went on to lose 7-5, 3-6, 4-6, 1-6 in the first reverse singles tie. With the tie level at 2-2 going into the final reverse singles, Bhupathi could not replicate his fighting performance from the first day and was defeated 1-6, 4-6, 3-6 by Novak.
Although India lost the tie, it was a spirited performance from the Indians especially Leander Paes in alien conditions against the much higher-ranked Czech team.
#4 India vs Netherlands - 1996
India faced the Netherlands in the Davis Cup World Group 1st Round home tie in Jaipur from 9th to 11th February 1996. The tie was played on a grass court, regarded as Leander's favorite surface.
The Dutch team, comprising the World No. 20 Jan Siemerink and World No. 71 Jacco Eltingh, was considered the favorites with Paes at World No. 132 and Bhupathi at World No. 348 the highest-ranked Indian singles players.
It seemed that the Dutch would run away with the tie after Paes lost the opening singles match to Eltingh 4-6, 5-7, 4-6. But Bhupathi caused a major upset by overcoming Siemerink 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4 in the thrilling second match to help India draw level in the tie.
But to India's dismay, the Paes-Bhupathi duo lost the crucial doubles tie 6-3, 2-6, 6-7, 4-6 to Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis to cede the advantage to the Dutch going into the final day of the tie.
The final day saw an inspired Paes as he downed Siemerink 7-6, 2-6, 7-6, 7-6 to keep India alive in the tie. It was now down to Bhupathi and he did not let down the wildly cheering Indian crowd by taking a 7-6, 4-6, 7-5, 2-1 lead before Eltingh retired in the fourth set to give India a memorable come-from-behind victory on the final day.
Although Bhupathi was undoubtedly the hero of the tie, Paes made a significant contribution with his win over the much higher-ranked Siemerink in the do-or-die fourth encounter.
#3 India vs Croatia - 1995
India faced Croatia in the Davis Cup World Group Qualification Round home tie in New Delhi from 22nd to 24th September 1995. This tie was played on the grass courts of the National Sports Club.
Croatia, with the services of World No. 7 Goran Ivanisevic, were the overwhelming favorite with Paes at World No. 123 and Bhupathi at World No. 274 being the highest-ranked Indian singles players.
Paes gave India the perfect start beating Sasa Hirszon, the second singles player in the Croatian team, in straight sets 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. But as expected, Ivanisevic levelled the tie score at 1-1 by outplaying Bhupathi 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the second singles encounter on the first day of the tie.
Paes and Bhupathi combined wonderfully on the second day to win the crucial doubles match 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 after coming back from a set down. This gave India a critical 2-1 lead going into the final day.
The final day brought the best out of Paes as he staged a grand comeback after losing the first two sets to outsmart Ivanisevic 6-7, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-1. The temperamental Croat seemed to be harrowed by the boisterous crowd and almost gave up the fight after losing the third set tie-breaker. Although Bhupathi lost the final reverse singles match to Hirszon 6-7, 6-3, 4-6, the tie was already sealed by Paes' victory and India qualified for the World Group.
#2 India vs South Africa - 1994
India faced South Africa in the Davis Cup World Group Qualification Round home tie in Jaipur from 23rd to 25th September 1994. This tie was played on the grass courts of the Jai Club Tennis Complex.
South Africa were the clear favorites going into the tie with the World No. 13 Wayne Ferreira and World No. 111 Grant Stafford in their ranks with Paes at World No. 151 the only Indian in the top 500 of the World rankings.
Paes got India off to a perfect start by jumping into a 6-4, 6-3, 5-2 lead before Stafford conceded the match. Ferreira blew away the challenge of Asif Ismail 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in the second singles match to restore parity in the tie.
The Indian pair of Paes and Gaurav Natekar could not put much of a resistance in the doubles encounter losing 4-6, 4-6, 1-6 to Ferreira and Piet Norval. At this moment it seemed that the tie was almost over with South Africa 2-1 ahead and the dominant Ferreira playing the first reverse singles on the final day.
But Paes had other ideas and in an inspired display of serve and volley tennis, he dismantled the challenge of Ferreira 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 to keep India's hopes alive in the tie. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be a fairytale ending with Ismail losing 4-6, 3-6, 3-6 to Marcos Ondruska in the deciding fifth match for India to go down 3-2 in the tie.
# 1 India vs France - 1993
India faced France in the Davis Cup World Group Quarterfinal away tie in Frejus, France from 16th to 19th July 1993. This tie was played on clay, the favored surface for the French and the least favorite surface of the Indians.
Even the eternal optimists had not given India any chance in the tie with the French team comprising the World No. 25 Arnaud Boetsch and World No. 68 Henri Leconte with Leander at World No. 208 and Ramesh Krishnan at World No. 231 being the highest-ranked Indians.
The first match did not give any indications of the things to follow with Boetsch outplaying Krishnan 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. But Paes brought the tie back to life with a stunning 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Leconte.
The doubles match did not go India's way as Paes and Krishnan went down fighting 6-7, 3-6, 4-6 to the French combination of Boetsch and Leconte. With France taking a 2-1 lead, it seemed the final day would just be a formality.
But no one had envisaged what was to follow with Paes blowing away Boetsch 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 in the first reverse singles. It was an outrageous display of serve-and-volley tennis on a surface least suited to this style of play. The chipped service returns and pressure at the net disturbed the game-plan of Boetsch and he did not have an answer to this rarely used tactic on clay.
With India having drawn level at 2-2 in the tie, it was now time for the experienced Krishnan to weave his magic. The touch artist did not let the country down coming back from a set down on two occasions to finally prevail 2-6, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 against Rodolphe Gilbert, with the match completed on Monday.
This remarkable victory helped India qualify for the Davis Cup World Group semifinals. Although Krishnan won the decisive fifth encounter of the tie, it was Paes' dream performance that was the highlight of the tie which is famously referred to as the "Miracle at Frejus".Published 24 Mar 2020, 16:31 IST