Leander Paes: The travelling salesman of tennis
An evangelist with a racket, spreading the tennis word with his ageing hands
V.V.S. Laxman and Leander Paes should sit down one day and talk. About the delicate hinges that must connect their wrists to their hands. About the feel in their educated fingers and the instinct they have for timing. About angles and angelic stuff. About subtlety and last-millisecond adjustments. Prakash Padukone can moderate the discussion: Once his wrist could make shuttles sing.
At 42, that’s one thing Paes still has. The hands. Artist’s hands. Gunfighter’s hands. Forget the winning, the volleys alone, even if he can be more errant now, are worth sitting up late for as I did during Wimbledon. Volleys low, blocked, high on the backhand. Volleys that shoot, skid, stop. Volleys sly, slick, slapped.
In Singapore, last week, Mahesh Bhupathi said: “He was the fastest guy in the world at the net”.
“He’s a step slower now and he’s still the fastest guy in the world at the net”.
You know how old Paes is by how far back you have to look. Used to be a kid, now he’s a monument. So you have to visit archives, burrow into history as I did, looking for an issue of Sportsworld magazine from early April 1990, round about when Kei Nishikori was three months old, because this is when it begins.
In room 68, Mountview Hotel, Chandigarh, he’s sitting on a chair, cramping, crying out, 16, just made his Davis Cup debut in the doubles with Zeeshan Ali and they’ve just gone 4 hectic hours and 26 mad minutes to beat a Japanese pair 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 18-16.
Paes doesn’t do calm, doesn’t know that if you dance, pump fists, yell for 4 hours, it sucks energy. He’s almost funny with his pumping fist and contorted face, and Ali, older, quieter, can’t stop him and later says: “I decided I better join this kid because there’s no point cooling him down.” He’s right, Paes never did.
Twenty-five years later, dig into another archive, the Davis Cup records, and in a tournament that’s 115 years old, he’s fourth in the list of Total Wins, sandwiched between Manuel Santana and Gottfried Von Cramm. He’s second in the list of Doubles Wins. He’s got 16 doubles Grand Slam titles, an Olympic singles bronze, a sometimes pretend smile, an ego, a history with Mahesh Bhupathi they should both be embarrassed by, and a lust for competition that comes from a place we don’t understand.
He’s tough, durable, adaptable. He’s had a hundred doubles partners—the record in this clearly unfaithful discipline is 168—and each one of them knows that some of Paes’ shots aren’t cheeky, just downright insolent. He is India’s greatest doubles player, he is one of the world’s greatest doubles players ever, but he’s not the best Indian player ever. Which really should be obvious, except that a very nice young Kolkata journalist asked me after Wimbledon if he is India’s greatest athlete, and his question itself was an exaggeration that required response.
We can be lazy with the past these days but to forget Ramanathan Krishnan is to be callous with history. Maybe if you’re not on YouTube these days, you never existed as an athlete, yet fortunately there’s a 10-minute Films Division segment called Krish which is as delightfully old-fashioned as him. There’s also a wonderful 1999 book, A Touch Of Tennis, the Krishnans’ story with Nirmal Shekar, where we’re reminded he was world No.3, and bested Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, which is like handing out occasional beatings to Rafa and Roger.
Krishnan, 78 now, owns the one feat no Indian has surpassed. Wimbledon 1960, 1961. Grand Slam semi-finalist. Singles.
Doubles is geometry and chemistry at high speed, agile thinking and dexterous racket work. But tennis is an individual sport, not a team activity, its complete expression as an art form is one against one. Singles is a full-court examination, not a half-court test, requiring larger lungs and finer repertoires and no one to hold your hand at changeovers.
Singles players are who we store in the memory, who steal the headlines, whose worth is decided by tournament organizers: £1,880,000 (Rs.18.8 crore) for this year’s Wimbledon singles champion, £340,00 for the doubles champion (£170,000 each). Singles defines greatness in tennis for no one counts Emerson’s 16 doubles titles or Laver’s six men’s doubles and three mixed doubles titles when comparing them to Federer, who has none.
It’s best, of course, to let a doubles specialist end the discussion. “No one,” says Bhupathi, “grows up wanting to be only a doubles specialist. Well, maybe the Bryan brothers. They were focused.” In everyone’s dreams, it’s always Sunday and Grand Slam singles, and Krishnan came closest.
This is not about demeaning doubles or Paes—who played singles in 15 Slams, lost nine times in the first round and got to the third round once—but about perspective. His career deserves respect and admiration but not amplification. Anyway his greatest gift to India is quite precious in itself.
For 19 consecutive years since 1997, he has won a doubles title every year. Fourteen times since 1999 he’s won or been a finalist in a Grand Slam doubles, or mixed doubles, or year-end doubles championship event. Forty-eight times he’s won Davis Cup singles matches. Once he won Olympic bronze and once, a statistic he must delight in, he, shorty, with the slow-motion serve, not just beat but out-aced Pete Sampras 7 to 4 in 1998.
Every time he does this, India talks, debates, watches, thinks tennis. Every time he shows up on TV, and stretches on a Centre Court, he makes tennis relevant in India.
Ask anyone not from cricket, ask shooters, runners, sailors, boxers, and they’ll tell you for a sport to matter it has to be noticed. To be seen by a sponsor, to provoke a child, it has to get on to front pages. It has to have someone accomplish a feat that drags a sport into a nation’s attention, again and again, and that’s him and also Bhupathi, Sania Mirza, Somdev Devvarman, Rohan Bopanna and a band of others. In an era of amputated attention spans, every act by any of them gives oxygen to their sport. Yet for 20-plus years it is he, primarily, who has been Indian tennis’ salesman of possibility.
He’ll play on, to a seventh Olympics in 2016 if he can—it would be an Indian record—and it is a wondrous story, yet also a sad one. Sometimes a racket has to be put down and a man must look beyond the courts. But he cannot, this is who Paes is, this is all he knows, a devoted father but also the wanderer, packing suitcases, riding planes with younger rivals, in another city, playing another volley, wearing defeat and searching for victory and a living, an evangelist with a racket spreading the tennis word with his ageing hands.
Rohit Brijnath is a columnist with The Strait Times, Singapore
Read Rohit’s previous Lounge columns here.