Is Leander Paes the greatest ever Indian tennis player?
There could be many ways to describe India’s ace tennis player – a man who gives his hundred percent on the court, a man who is probably India’s best ambassador of tennis, a man with a never-say- die-attitude, a man who is epitome of willpower and commitment and a man who is a fighter to the hilt.
No wonder he is winning grand slams even at the age of forty and giving millions of Indians umpteen reasons to be proud of. In the past, there have been several outstanding tennis players who have made India proud, like Ramanathan Krishnan and Vijay Amritraj, who made their mark in Grand Slams or Ramesh Krishnan who reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and US Open. Vijay Amritraj reached the quarterfinals of Grand Slams on four occasions and gave tough fight to legends of the game like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. Their contribution to the game cannot be undermined and thus when one hails Paes, it is not meant to take anything away from them. Probably they were the inspiration for Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi to take up the sport, but if one goes by the statistics and the number of wins, then probably Leander ranks right at the top.
Paes announced his arrival on the tennis circuit at the age of 18 when he became the world number one in junior rankings and won Junior US Open and Wimbledon titles in 1991. However, when he won the bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics everybody back in India was immensely proud of what he had achieved. Though, many hearts were broken when he lost to eventual gold medallist Andre Agassi in the semi finals, a medal at Olympics was no mean feat. From then on, Paes has been like a relentless crusader, bringing much glory to his country and much happiness to his countrymen.
He has given us many moments to savour – the men`s doubles and mixed doubles titles in the 1999 Wimbledon and the mixed doubles Wimbledon title in 2010 which made Paes only the second man (after Rod Laver) to win Wimbledon titles in three different decades. And when one ponders on the fact that Paes became the only second tennis player in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam at the age of 40, when he along with Radek Stepanek won the 2013 US Open Grand Slam, then you cannot help but tell yourself – this man is amazing. Incidentally, the first person to have achieved that feat was Martina Navratilova – with whom Paes partnered in 2003 and won the Australian Open.
If the younger crop of Indian tennis players like Rohan Bopanna, Somdev Devvarman, Vishnu Vardhan and Yuki Bhambri want to achieve great heights and bring laurels to their country, then they must emulate the man whose actions speak louder than words. After all it’s not every day that an Indian wins at the Flushing Meadows – this was Paes’s third championship victory at the arena, which took his tally to eighth doubles and fourteenth overall major title. And he was appearing in his 30th slam final. No wonder after his victory, Martina tweeted – “Wow LP. Legend! Unreal effort!” This coming from one of the all time greatest tennis players speaks volumes of the kind of respect that Paes commands, not just in India but amongst tennis fraternity across the globe.
It is often said that age is just a number. However, Paes has truly proved that age is actually just a number and the adage does not exist just for the heck of it. What endears Paes to tennis lovers and his fans is the fact the even after being on the circuit for so many years, he tremendously enjoys his game. The chest thumping and the little jigs on the court is probably his way of saying that he is in love with the game and he will fight all odds to continue at the international level till he can.
In 2003 when he was diagnosed with Neurocysticercosis (parasitic disease of the nervous system) and overcame it to get back to his passion, it was a testimony of his mental strength. And in what can only be termed as a sad chapter in the annals of Indian tennis, when the AITA-Olympics controversy erupted in 2012, Paes handled himself with utmost dignity and maintained that no matter what country comes first for him.
After the win at Flushing Meadows Paes said that the win was ‘really special’ and placed it above his Australian Open win in 2012. Considering the fact that he had a pretty average first half of the year, this win must be gratifying for him in more ways than one. Going into the final, he had only one ATP title – Winston-Salem Open with Daniel Nestor. And what made the win special was the fact the he and Stepanek defeated Mike and Bob Bryan in the semis, the defending champions and arguably the greatest doubles players in the history of the game. In the process, they dashed the Bryan brothers’ hopes of becoming the first men’s doubles team since 1951 to claim a calendar year Grand Slams.
And in what is good news for his fans and India is that he has no plans of calling it quits at the moment and plans to continue for a long time to come. He said he was looking at 41, 42, 43... Well, as long as he has hunger in his belly and as long as he can go out there and compete and as long as he can come up with winners, his well-wishers will only say – way to go Leander.
Probably, his philosophy and attitude towards life and the game of tennis could best be summed up in his own words. Leander who is pretty active on the social media once tweeted – “You will definitely have to fight for what you want in life. You have to take it. Nothing that is worth it will be given away easily” – Need we say more.