Leander Paes - the unheralded torchbearer of Indian tennis
While all eyes were on the Indian cricket team as they succumbed to one defeat after another in alien conditions Down Under, Leander Paes’ tryst with destiny continued. As the country was dissecting each and every loss of MS Dhoni’s boys, the unheralded 41-year-old tennis player silently went about his work, adding yet another Grand Slam to his already glittering cabinet of trophies, won over an illustrious career spanning 25 years.
Standing with Martina Hingis with the winner’s trophy at Melbourne as his name made its way on to the Honour’s Board at the Australian Open, where it would stand the test of time till eternity, there was no missing the gleam in his eyes as talks swayed towards the 2016 Rio Olympics. At an age when most sportspeople start their second innings, away from the game they love the most, Paes gears up for his seventh Olympics with the same determination and fortitude with which he had prepared for his first Games, way back in 1992.
Decades changed, the millennium turned, great players conquered and retired but the unstoppable Lee refused to be bogged down.
Not when he was struck with a parasitic infection in his brain which threatened his playing career way back in 2003 or when he was unceremoniously ousted as the captain of the Davis Cup team when the other members revolted against him in 2008. Even when Mahesh Bhupati refused to partner him at the 2012 Olympic Games, despite much mud-slinging, Lee managed to hold his own and partnered Vishnu Vardhan, even though he deserved someone with whom he had a realistic chance of winning.
Never to be trapped in a battle of ego and words, Paes’ journey has never been about personal achievements as it has been about the tricolour, witnessed for years when he takes the field for the country during the Davis Cup games, winning improbable matches for the team and for India.
The chest bumps are harder after every point, the applause increases manifold after every famous volley where he threatens to charge at the opposition as if he is a demon possessed, just as he had in the classic Davis Cup World Group play-off in Bangalore in September last year.
Being two sets and a break down in the third set and already trailing 0-2 in the rubber, he teamed up with Bopanna (yes even after he had revolted against him and was instrumental in his removal as captain of the team) in a must-win game, inspiring the Bangalorean to take his game to another level altogether. His drop shots combined with his forehand as he continued hitting the winners, serving aces with élan, his reflexes looking like that of a 16-year-old, rather than that of an old aging champion who has nothing left to conquer.
Why he is the best sportsperson produced in the country
Tennis is not an easy sport. It is played in every nook and corner of the world. Every few years, a different set of players arrive on the circuit, with fresher legs and newer techniques. To survive in this world, one must have the right ammunition of fitness and zeal. As years whizz past, each opponent needs to be studied with accuracy and often there is very little separating the two rivals. The competition has raced to such levels where one has to be at his peak at all times, in all matches.
Tennis is not cricket. For one, cricket is a team game where even if the score beside your name reads naught, you can emerge on the triumphant side. The comforts of a dressing room elude tennis players, with even a slight delay in the game earning them visits to the match officials. In tennis, you are your own hero and own villain, fighting a war on the court where no one can come to your rescue.
Paes has had it tougher- adjusting to the playing techniques of different partners over the course of his career and forming bonds which can break the shackles of the opposition, ignoring the boundaries being imposed by age.
The true patriot who never fails to inspire
Despite a career earning of $7,938,078, 15 Grand Slams, a singles Bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, over 693 ATP wins and awards like the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna to his credit, the man from Kolkata has shown little or no signs of stopping. He has his eyes set on the mixed doubles trophy at the French Open, which will complete a well-deserving Career Grand Slam in mixed doubles which would complement his Career Slam in men’s doubles, with his ulterior motive being playing for the nation in Rio next year.
He continues to be an inspiration for all Indians, someone who sends out a message of patriotism every time he wins a game. Wrapped in the Tricolour, tears rolling down his eyes, barely being able to utter the words – “this win is for you, my fans and my flag, which continue to motivate me.”
Giving us Goosebumps and making us wonder at him in awe, Paes continues to be an idol off-field as well. He has not uttered a single word against a fellow player, despite him being the scapegoat more than once. Knowing Lee, he won’t hesitate twice before teaming up with a “rebel” if the nation calls out to him.
Over the course of his journey, he has made some unforgettable bonds due to his humility and soft-hearted shy interior, very different from the aggressive exterior he portrays while at play. None more closer than the friendship he has shared with tennis legend Martina Navratilova who had decided against competing in the 2003 US Open when her mixed doubles partner lay in the hospital bed in Orlando, all the while stating that “our bond is much more than winning titles.” Such is his legacy.
As he stood with the Australian Open Trophy on Sunday with another Martina, the fan in me could not thank him enough for being a role model, many players fail to be. In a cricket crazy nation, Leander has always stayed in the shadows, yet he has never failed to show the youngsters: to believe that all obstacles have the power to disappear through sheer struggle and excellence.
A day will come when he will serve for one last time, but till then let us pride ourselves in having a champion like him.
Leander Paes- my hero, an idol.