When the USSR was intact, India still a few days away from being a liberalised economy, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s record-breaking Terminator 2 was waiting to be released and Brazil had achieved only three of its five FIFA World Cup triumphs, Leander Paes was already up and running in the world of professional tennis, as a sprightly teenager. It was 1991, and the junior US Open and Wimbledon champion had just turned pro.
What a long, strange trip it’s been! In that time, Paes became (and still is) the only Indian Olympic medallist in tennis, one of the few from the country to win an ATP singles event (Newport, 1998), clinched 18 Grand Slam titles and became the most successful doubles player ever in the Davis Cup.
That journey will come to an end in 2020, a year in which Paes has decided to go with the slogan ‘One Last Roar’ in each of the tournaments that he will be playing. The Bengaluru Open that started this week is part of that trail, and probably the last tournament that Paes will be playing in his homeland.
Paes is 46 now. The winners don’t flow quite so easily from his racket, those finely tuned backhand slices are now just a little off-key. Yet, Paes is not just another tennis player. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, it had been 16 years since India returned with a medal from the Games. And tennis was not a sport in which it was expected. With an injured wrist, Paes took on Brazilian Fernando Meligeni in the bronze medal play-off and emerged triumphant.
In 1998, Paes achieved perhaps the biggest victory by an Indian singles tennis player when he defeated Pete Sampras, a 14-time Grand Slam winner and world number 2 at the time, at the New Haven Open. He also won the Newport Open that year.
On and off for close to 15 years, Paes formed one of the dream doubles teams in the world with Mahesh Bhupathi. They clinched 25 ATP doubles titles together, including three majors. In the Davis Cup, the duo stitched a record 23 doubles rubber wins on the trot.
Yet, it was in India colours that Paes shone brightest. Overhauling Croatia’s Goran Ivanisevic at the 1995 Davis Cup tie was a classic example. Ivanisevic, then world number 7, was the losing semi-finalist of that year’s Wimbledon, and on the grass court at Kolkata’s South Club, he was expected to cause mayhem. Paes, then world number 123, had other ideas. Down two sets, Paes put up a fight to remember, and won the match.
“He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs — he’s the Brad of Bombay. Then, behind all his junk, he flies to the net, covers so well that it seems to work. After an hour, you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly,” Andre Agassi wrote this about Paes in Open: An autobiography. Agassi knows what he’s talking about, but what he does not talk of is the sheer mental strength that makes a man who’s “never learned to hit a tennis ball” make a glittering, almost improbably long, career out of it.
Sometimes that stubbornness left his teammates frustrated (and fuming). He had a bitter, long-drawn fallout with Bhupathi. Ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London, when Paes was told to partner a lesser-ranked Vishnu Vardhan instead of the higher-ranked Rohan Bopanna, he famously said: “The poor boy (Vardhan) is 307 in the world and I don’t even know if he has grass court shoes.”
At a time when Indian tennis players are searching for ways to make consistent inroads into the top levels, Paes is a reminder of an era that heralded great possibilities. Perhaps his ‘one last roar’ will inspire anew.
Leander Paes was the first Indian after KD Jadhav (wrestling, 1952) to win an individual Olympic medal. Paes won it in 1996.
He holds the record for the most Davis Cup doubles wins, with 43 victories
In his career, Paes has played with 131 different partners in doubles (men’s)
Paes won the Junior US Open and the Junior Wimbledon in 1991 and rose to number 1 in the world junior rankings.
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