If a question is asked to name the Indian sports personality who aroused maximum national pride, Leander Paes would figure amongst the shortest of shortlists. The popularity of the game in the country would ensure that cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni would top this list. Similarly, the successes of Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu at the highest level in their chosen sport would qualify them for a similar consideration. Paes, on the other hand, did not reach the top of the pole in world tennis, but he held aloft the national flag, giving the nation some cause to cheer, at a time when there was little to celebrate.
Achievements of Paes are so many that it is difficult to recount them all in the course of a column. But what made him special was his ability to bring out an extra amount of zeal and energy while turning out for the country, which earned him the reputation of being a giant-killer when wearing national colours. The spirit of defiance he displayed when battling heavy odds, which invariably saw him emerge triumphant, made him a legendary figure so much so that public believed that the cause was not lost so long as Paes was there on the tennis court. He epitomised the new breed of Indians who are never short of confidence and fought till the last, without giving an inch. In many ways he symbolised the newfound resurgence of India during the 1990s and 2000s that saw the country break out of the self imposed shackles and place itself on a perch from where dreams and aspirations were only a step away from reality.
Let us start with the Olympic Games. During the five decades since Independence, India had bagged a solitary medal in Olympics, other than in Hockey, till 1996. Once the medals in hockey dried up from 1976 onwards (with the exception of 1980), India stopped figuring in the list of nations that won medals in Olympics. This was a matter of great shame for the sports lovers of the country that the second most populous nation on earth could not even bag a single medal in the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet. It was Paes who broke this drought by winning a bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996, sparking off huge celebrations in India, more in relief than in exultation. From that point onwards, India has not looked back and there have not been an Olympic Games since 1996 where the nation has not won a medal.
In 1993 India defeated Switzerland 3-2 in the Davis Cup first round, though Swiss players Jacob Hlasek and Marc Rosset were ranked higher than Paes and Ramesh Krishnan. Both Paes and Ramesh won against Rosset, while losing to Hlasek, but the pair combined well to clinch victory in doubles to ensure that India moved to the quarterinals where they took on France.
No one gave India a sliver of hope against France, who had in their ranks seasoned players such as Henri Leconte and Arnaud Boetsch, who figured in the top 30 in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings. Further, the tie was played on the clay courts at Frejus in south eastern France in settings that suited the hosts. Boetsch easily won the first match defeating Ramesh in straight sets, but Paes produced an upset to defeat Leconte to keep India in the tie. Unfortunately, Paes and Ramesh were off colour the next day and lost the doubles match, which India were expected to win, thus giving the advantage to France. Paes pulled off a miracle by playing superlative tennis to beat Boescsh in straight sets. This win so rattled the French and motivated India that Ramesh rallied to beat Rodolfe Gilbert in a tense five-setter to win the tie 3-2.
Paes showed that this victory was not a flash in the pan by fashioning a similar win two years later against Croatia in the World Group play-off stage. Croatia had in their ranks Goran Ivanisevic, then ranked No. 7 in the world and a future Wimbledon champion, known for his thunderous serves. Paes won the singles match defeating Sarsa Henson in straight sets and then combined with Mahesh Bhupathi to win the doubles as well.
In the crucial reverse singles against Ivanisevic, Paes found himself down two sets but hung on to win the third set in a tie-breaker. This marked the turning point as Paes suddenly raised his game to outplay Ivanisevic in the last two sets to put the match beyond the Croatians.
In the ATP circuit, Paes made his name as a doubles player despite the occasional triumphs in the singles category. He won a total of 18 Grand Slam titles - eight in men’s doubles and 10 in mixed category, besides finishing runners-up eight times each in both categories. Further, he also won both the men's doubles and mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1999, a unique achievement in the annals of the game.
It was in combination with Bhupathi that Paes caught the attention of tennis lovers the world over. Though the pair had started playing together in 1997, the two reached their peak in 1999, when they reached the finals of all four Grand Slams, winning two - French Open and Wimbledon. The pair went on to win the French Open again in 2001, before parting ways. Though they teamed up again, they could not recapture the magic nor attain the potency that had marked them out as different in their early years. Paes, on his part, found capable partners in Martin Damm (2004-06), Lukas Dlouhy (2007-10) and Radek Stepanek (2011-13), winning Grand Slam titles with all three.
Paes achieved greater success in mixed doubles, where he partnered two of the all time greats in women’s tennis - Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis - with excellent results. Navratilova, who was the undisputed queen of women’s tennis till the late 1980s, moved to doubles subsequently. In her final foray through mixed doubles, she teamed up with Paes to win the Wimbledon and Australian Open in 2004. Hingis, on the other hand, paired up with Paes in the twilight of his career (2015-16), but the duo managed to win all Grand Slam titles during this period. The other women players who partnered Paes successfully were Lisa Raymond, with who he won the Wimbledon title in 1999, Cara Black and Elena Vesnina.
At the beginning of 2020, Paes had announced that he would be retiring form the game at the end of that year. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the suspension of sporting activities during that year meant that Paes could not get the farewell that he so richly deserved. He has not won any Grand Slam or international titles since 2016 but he had shown the gumption to keep going despite the advancing age. Personal issues cast a shadow on his persona and the decision to join a political outfit complicated matters further. In short, he faded away from the centerstage of tennis court, surfacing occasionally on the pages of tabloid world.
The relevance of Paes to Indian sports can be understood only by those who had felt the shame and humiliation during the last century when our teams and players went down often without offering any fight and returned empty-handed from major sporting events. Paes made us realise the thrill of watching one of our own coming up triumphant against higher-ranked players, braving heavy odds. Between the World Cup victory of 1983 and the resurgence of national cricket side under Sourav Ganguly during the early years of the present century, Paes was the only source of hope for the sports lovers of this country. And Paes lived up to the expectation of the millions, always fighting till the very end without ever giving up. One could literally see the tricolour flutter inside him every time he stepped on the tennis court.
Indian sports arena will see many champion performers in the years to come. But it is unlikely that one will see a fighter in the same mould as Paes, who kept the flag of the country flying high by his efforts on the court. Well played, Paes!
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)