An open letter to Leander Paes – the warrior of Indian tennis
It has been quite a while since you have been in action on the tennis court. I understand that at the age of 40, you have the right to pick and choose the tournaments you play. But it still feels very odd when I see an Indian Davis Cup team without Leander Paes. I am not writing this letter to criticize your absence from the court, but to pay tribute to your service to the nation these past 24 years.
I came to know about you when I had to learn an answer for my General Knowledge exam. At that time, I did not realize the significance of the question ‘Which Indian tennis player won a medal in the 1996 Olympics?’ But as I began to follow sport and tennis in particular, I realized the Herculean effort that feat actually required.
After a 54-year drought suffered by a country of more than a billion people, an individual medal is finally earned by a player who is described by the great Andre Agassi as ‘a jumping bean and a bundle of kinetic energy’. I believe that your energy and enthusiasm, which you have maintained even at the age of 40, make you stand out from the rest who have represented India.
People remember you for the Atlanta medal, but the first time I realized your larger-than-life, give-it-all-for-the-country image was during the Davis Cup tie in Mumbai. It was an India-Pakistan match at a cricket ground – Brabourne stadium. And when the arch-rivals face off in any sport, sparks are bound to fly.
India has always performed better than Pakistan in tennis. But Davis Cup brings the best out of the players and that was exactly what was on display on the grasscourts of the Brabourne stadium. Pakistan levelled the tie at 2-2, and out you come to help India retain its place in Group 1. It was a master-stroke to come out and play the deciding rubber, knowing that your experience would be handy in clinching the match.
A two sets to love lead against Aqeel Khan made me think to myself that the tie was done and dusted. But as they say, the match is not over till the final point is won. What followed was inspired tennis from the Pakistani, and it seemed to me that you had just mentally switched off. But in the end, the grit and determination with which you have always played proved to be decisive. You helped clinch the tie for India in a match which I consider equivalent to any thrilling India-Pakistan cricket match.
I have always been a big fan of your partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi. Despite the ups and downs that you guys have had, it fills me with immense pride to know that you are the most successful pair that India has ever produced. Looking at the cut-throat competition that exists on the ATP circuit, I now realize how much it must have taken you both to reach four consecutive Grand Slam finals.
I can never forget the disappointment of Athens, where both you and Mahesh fought till the last point. But such is life, and you, being a player who has seen both the bright and dark end of an Olympic medal match, would probably agree.
After the 2006 Asian Games, your doubles team was never the same again. The heartbreak of Athens could not be healed in Beijing. A mini-revival of the partnership in 2011 was just a blip in a topsy-turvy relationship. But I guess the best are sometimes not meant to play with each other.
Despite that, I always wonder what could have happened if you guys had played for a longer time. Could yours have been the partnership that could have challenged the Bryan brothers on the men’s circuit?
When I see your records, I am astonished to see the number of titles that you have won. By winning every Masters series trophy apart from Madrid, a career Grand Slam and an Olympic medal, you have certainly scripted your name in gold in the highest echelons of tennis history. But even to this day, I hear you talking in your interviews about your desire to improve your serve. That makes me sit back and marvel at everything you have achieved, and at your will to keep improving all the time. I guess that is the mark of a true great.
As I end this letter, I want to emphasize this: Leander Paes, you are truly an inspiration to an entire nation. If Sachin Tendulkar was Indian cricket’s greatest servant, then you are the equivalent of that on the tennis court.
Lastly, I wish you all the best and hope to see you play for many years to come, perhaps even turning back the clock by a couple of decades and winning another medal in Rio.
With a lot of respect and admiration,