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The Legend of Leander Paes Goes Beyond Olympics, Grand Slam Titles

Leander Paes’ announcement of retirement brings back several unforgettable tales for the Indian tennis fraternity.

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There is still some time left for Leander Paes to actually hang up his boots and lock his kitbag away, but his announcement that 2020 will be his final year on the pro circuit does cause the memory to be flooded with freeze-frames. Most of them still draw from the rich palette of colours, though some are sepia-toned and others need some dusting of the cobwebs.

Yet, at a time when he has finally decided to slow down, if there is one thing that we will remember Leander Paes for, it for his flicking a switch for Olympic sport in India back in 1996 when he won the bronze medal.

Many who had hungered for years for an Olympic medal stayed up all night on 3 August to celebrate his victory over Fernando Meligini in the play-off.
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Leander Paes’ announcement of retirement brings back several unforgettable tales for the Indian tennis fraternity.
Leander Paes won bronze for India at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
(Photo: Twitter)

For a good part of that week when he played at the Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, some of us fortunate journalists shrank our sleep hours just to be able to go on 40km drive each day to watch the magician produce miracles on court. It remains one of the most memorable weeks of my life as a sports-writer.

Though he has quite a few journeys left to be undertaken in the coming year – and more memories to add to his rich collection – it can never be forgotten that Leander Paes has appeared to drape the Tricolour around him each time he stepped on the court for India, pride bursting in heart and influencing everyone around him.

He grew up in Calcutta with his parents’ cupboard full of India jerseys. “My mom’s number was 5 and dad’s No. 10. It is these jerseys that gave me a dream, a dream to be an Olympian, a dream to try and emulate my father in winning a medal,” he said, recalling that mother Jennifer led the Indian women’s basketball team and father Vece Paes won bronze with the hockey team in 1972.

While he pursued and realised his dream – and climbed more peaks in the world of professional sport – he instilled a sense of belief among fellow-athletes in the country that Olympic Games medals were not such a mirage as they had appeared to be for decades.

If you asked me to pick turning points in India’s recent sporting history, Leander Paes’ bronze will figure prominently.
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Leander Paes’ announcement of retirement brings back several unforgettable tales for the Indian tennis fraternity.
Leander Paes with his parents Vece Paes and Jennifer Paes.
(Photo: Twitter)

In his wonderful book, A Shot at History, Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra mentions Leander Paes’ instinctive athleticism in an almost envious tone. For someone who was not blessed with great height, Leander Paes would dart around the court, be at full stretch, and dive fearlessly to be able to produce returns. Indeed, his court-coverage was always a treat for sore eyes.

It would be a massive risk to pick just one stroke from such a long career to define Leander Paes’ approach on the tennis court but this one from the 2015 US Open in Flushing Meadows washes up again and again in the mind.

The image that springs up quite effortlessly is from a mixed doubles final. He picked up a Sam Querrey serve and whipped a down-the-line winner. It was precisely placed with surgical accuracy. At championship point, 7-7 in the super tie-break, it was played with such boundless confidence that reflecting on the shot, Martina Hingis, his partner said: “You have to really have the guts to go that return down the line and make the difference when it counts.”

It was an extraordinarily cunning shot at a very emotional stage of the final. It called for extra touch of precision since it was not blasted back with power. Having hit nearly all his winners down the middle, the ageless wonder from India, pulled the rabbit out of the hat and stunned his opponents. Many would have embraced percentage play. But not Leander Paes.

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Leander Paes’ announcement of retirement brings back several unforgettable tales for the Indian tennis fraternity.
File photo of Martina Hingis (L) and Leander Paes (R). 
(Photo: AP)
One of the most endearing things about Leader Paes is that he refused to join the bandwagon of those criticising Indian cricket for casting a shadow over Olympic disciplines.

He has come across as a statesman, prepared to understand the situation that his sport finds itself in and doing the best in his own way to spread the message of tennis.

“For me, sport is an amazing vehicle to communicate with people, to bridge cultures, communities and languages,” he once told me when I pressed him to define what sport meant to him. It will be suffice to say that Leander Paes has sought hard to live up to his own definition of sport. Of course, there have been some blips – notably, his fallout with long-term doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi.

On the doubles circuit, the Indian Express, as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were called, was a terrific partnership. For several years, they held their own as the country’s premier athletes, taking sports fans on a spectacular journey. It must be said, though, that neither the fans nor the two players themselves deserved that pairing to split, and in such a bloodied manner.

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Leander Paes’ announcement of retirement brings back several unforgettable tales for the Indian tennis fraternity.
File photo of Mahesh Bhupathi (L) and Leander Paes (R). 
(Photo: Reuters)

Yet, I will not forget how he allayed the fears of athletes from Australia and New Zealand before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

“This generation around the world lives under constant threat. It’s all about how you look at it, security and the way we approach such situations. India is a great country, we have a lot to show for ourselves as far as tourism, business and sport goes.”
Leander Paes

When he turned professional back in 1991, the Indian economy was opening up; we were just about beginning to get exposed to cable and satellite TV. And three decades later, as the Indian economy faces a few challenges and our lives are being influenced by more screens, Leander Paes prepares to end his journey in professional tennis, one that he managed with grace and dignity.

And yes, when someone sits down to write the complete history of sport in independent India, Leander Paes will deserve a whole chapter rather than get sporadic mention. And whoever scripts that can perhaps start with a line that Leander Paes once used to describe himself – a student of life whose journey in life is to achieve excellence in anything he does.

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(G Rajaraman is a Delhi-based student of sport who has been writing and commenting for 35 years. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Martina Hingis   Grand Slam   Leander Paes 

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