Sports writers don’t cry. Maybe cynicism clogs our tear ducts. We’re supposed to be hard-nosed, Damon Runyon-worshipping creatures, drinking cheap whisky and holding dying cigarettes to complete the cliché. Except, some days, sport turns you inside out, it takes a different grip on the throat and everything goes haywire.
Goddam, Leander Paes, I say.
Covering the sporting 1990s was often like a tired investigation into mediocrity. But I admired athletes because they fought hardship and handicap. I’d go to training grounds and listen to the music of athletes training for major games, the wrestlers with their grunting rap, the boxers with their grim percussion on bags. Then I’d see them touch official feet and grimace.
Pictures invaded our home, of Pete Sampras’ barn-door shoulders and Ronaldo’s turbine-like thighs. Sport was too fast, professional, muscular for India, and you could smell fear on many Indian athletes. But Sachin Tendulkar didn’t have it, Viswanathan Anand didn’t feel it and Leander couldn’t spell it.
But he should have felt inferior. He didn’t have Tendulkar’s concentrated technique nor Anand’s fertile mind. They were extraordinary players, Leander wasn’t. Average height. Average game, for volley aside, which was akin to a Marvin Hagler jab, his technique arrived from a defective tennis factory.
Crowned: (from left) Leander Paes, Sergi Bruguera and Andre Agassi won bronze, silver and gold, respectively, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Getty Images
But he was fast, twitching on court as if an invisible God was electrocuting him. And he owned this inner voice, which we couldn’t hear but whose primeval desire we could see in his play, a voice that convinced him he was a sort of tennis Rocky from a Calcutta bylane. But only when he played for India.
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He was naturally competitive and we’d play table tennis, carom, golf and he wouldn’t give a bloody inch. It didn’t show enough on tour, but put him in a Davis Cup, an Asian Games, and his tap of adrenalin opened. It wasn’t simply patriotism, it was an answering to the theatrical hero within, he was a Las Vegas entertainer in search of a crowd. Give him one, he’ll give you a show.
So there we are, the Atlanta Olympics. He’s 23. Never won a round in a Grand Slam singles event. Ranked No. 126 or thereabouts. I’m not even watching him. But, at different venues, the hockey, the athletics, news leaks in from the tennis centre. The kid won again. He beats Richey Reneberg, world No. 20, beats Nicolas Pereira, world No. 74, beats Thomas Enqvist, world No. 10. We know he thinks rankings are only to be disrespected, but this is ridiculous.
I start making the trek to the tennis centre because it’s beginning. The pressure. Forty-four years is how long India hasn’t won an individual Olympic medal, 44 years which everyone wants him to erase. Even Mahesh Bhupathi can feel it and stays on to help his friend. The friend beats Renzo Furlan, world No. 26, he forces world No. 6 Andre Agassi to a first-set tie-breaker in the semis but loses. Now he’s in the play-off for bronze against Fernando Meligeni, world No. 93.
I know this kid, I lived 500 yards from him. I am at his house day after day, sitting with his father Vece and stepmother Julie as they search for funds, look for coaches, struggling bravely through this incredible stress of trying to forge an international tennis career from a Calcutta house. I see him make his Davis Cup debut, share a pizza with him on his birthday in London, watch him win junior Wimbledon.
Then he loses the first set to Meligeni. Some of us are asked to exit the press box because we’re cheering and really we shouldn’t, it’s unprofessional, but Leander makes tennis personal, he affects you, he demands your involvement, till you’re on your feet before you can stop. He wins the second set. By the third I keep slipping out, walking the perimeter of the stadium outside, drawing deeply on a Gold Flake, listening to the scores on the loudspeaker. I am too nervous to watch. It’s as if I still don’t believe this child from the neighbourhood, who used to sleep with his football boots—he played everything—is now on the verge of an Olympic medal. But he believes, he swallows his anxiety, he runs, he chases, he volleys, he exults, he wins, and what the hell else do you do at such a moment but quietly cry for this boy who refuses to go deaf to the voice within?
My reaction has to do with India and all that accumulated losing, but it’s also about the compelling beauty of struggle. I know this now because I will cry only once more in sport, in 2004, for an Algerian gazelle named Hicham El Guerrouj, who fails in the 1,500m in Atlanta 1996 and weeps himself, fails in Sydney 2000 and weeps, and then finally wins in Athens 2004. I meet him one day years later, I tell him I cried, and he, smiling, reaches out to grab my hand.
I think about Leander now and then. He still plays Davis Cup at 38, but the athlete in him is dying and that raging voice is softer. But I hope I never forget that day in 1996. The day he dissolved an Indian cynicism, the day he produced such charismatic courage that he had the capacity to move, the day when that strangest of things happened. Athletes win for themselves first. But that day, he let us think he was winning for us.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at email@example.com