Tianjin, China. Tennis Davis Cup, one of my most beloved sports competitions. He was intended to be the hero, the story of this tie – maybe even securing the Indian victory already after three matches with a doubles victory against the home team. 2nd set doubles, 4-4 score. He is to serve. Leander Paes. The guy which made me love this bunch of guys typically wearing light blue shirts on court. 0-30 trailing at own serve. China won the first set in tie-break sensationally against the Indian legend and the even better ranked Rohan Bopanna. After having a terrible day 1 at even worse weather conditions in China, the favourite are going to be whitewashed and sent to relegation.
Already about to fail
What happened thereafter is one of the most memorable comebacks in this legendary competition. Yes, India had a many of these amazing upsets, especially in the 1990s, where I started following – and loving – this team. Leander, who struggled with his serve quite a lot – neither his size (1.78m) nor his age (44) is giving him the dynamics to slam the ball across the net in the 200’s of kph – but as that often in his career he proofs to be able to do tennis magic: coming back with four points in a row giving India the lead in second set and finally fighting with Bopanna to a close, but deserved three-set win over China closes up the tie to a 2-1 for China – and gives a turning point followed by two amazing victories by the Indian singles players Ramkumar Ramanathan and re-nominated Prajnesh Gunneswaran which give India their fifth consecutive Davis Cup World Group Playoff appearance. The new Group I rules just going for best-of-three matches may reduce the visibility of this stunning performance. But coming back after a desasterous 0-2 score after Day 1 in that way cannot be underestimated.
Creating Davis Cup History
The magic of this comeback is a team’s performance, starting with captain Mahesh Bhupathi going for the right decisions at the right time, as well as all five players (including Sumit Nagal, who did not step on court on Day 2 any more). The magic of the moment belongs to Leander Paes. By converting the first out of three match points in third set tie break, he gave another proof of being one of the big living legends of this sports. Professional doubles victory #750 (being the 6th player in the history of the ATP who reaches that level) and moreover, winning his 43rd Davis Cup doubles match and thereby surpassing Italian Nicola Pietrangeli to become to unique world record holder in this (and likely for ages) gave Leander the record and a day of honor of him he truly deserved.
Leander Paes – An Idol
I met Leander for the first time at the 1999 US Open in New York, Flushing Meadows. The first time I actively watched him playing was 1996, when he beat Andre Agassi in the Olympics on his way to the Olympic Bronze Medal in singles tennis. I learned more and more about him and the Indian Davis Cup team. Seeing this guy live on that US hardcourt somehow changed my life. Some people say he is selfish… And maybe he is in a certain way. But on the other hand, I never met or saw any tennis player who is that much of a team player like Leander Paes. Especially in Davis Cup, he can look back to incredible performances like beating Henri Leconte and Arnaud Boetsch in Frejus, France, 1993 to advance to the World Group semifinals (maybe the most remarkable Indian Davis Cup performance in history). Wayne Ferreira, Goran Ivanisevic, Jan Siemerink, Jiri Novak and a couple of top tennis players more have one thing in common: they failed against this guy from Kolkata wearing Indian colours on the Davis Cup court. In addition, Paes and Bhupathi have been unbeaten in Davis Cup doubles for 24 matches in a row (another record which is likely impossible to beat in the future). Winning two Mixed Grand Slam titles with Martina Navratilova in 2003 truely turns Leander into a legend. Even when I saw him at the 2018 US Open, every point of Leander feels like a special gift to me.
Leander Paes – A hero
Neither a brain tumor in the early 2000’s nor his increasing age could stop Leander. Four Mixed Grand Slam titles during 2015 and 2016 – twenty years after his Olympic medal and 26 years after his first Davis Cup appearance (which he by the way won in a five-setter together with Zeeshan Ali, 5th set score 18-16, against Japan…). In recent years, he fought back to higher ATP Doubles Rankings, as he in the meantime has been ranked that low that he did not qualify into all ATP events any more. Challenger Tour instead of retiring. At the beginning of 2018, he played another ATP Final, walking through the top-class Dubai tournament of Dubai with (not really top-notch) US player James Cerretani after receiving a wildcard from the organisers… and twenty years after he won the title of that tournament together with Bhupathi, his legendary partner.
Leander Paes – A friend
Especially in the 2000s, when being at University made it much easier to have spontaneous travels to tennis tournaments, I met and supported Leander several times. I am glad to say that I have seen him on Olympic grass courts at Wimbledon 2012 as well (though his campaign there has not been too successful). Even after we met in Delhi 2016 the last time, he still showed me how much he values me being around.
Leander has embossed my life as a sports fan fo more than half of my life. He has been my idol, my hero, my friend. I always saw his amazing performances rather than the problems around him here and there – because he added so much to my life. I will always take out my Leander Paes shirt when he his on court. No matter if he wins or looses. Because I know, he will try his best. There have been times in his life when this was not enough to win. I don’t care. I am very proud of this guy. I know I will be there when he will be inducted to the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, one day… He will be, for sure! But this means that this guy stopped playing tennis for at least five years. Hard to imagine he will ever do this. And hard to imagine how tennis will be like without him.
I just felt I had to write this blog post to honor him for this performance at 7th April 2018 in Tianjin, China – and moreover, for all the achievements in his whole career. Thank you and congrats, Leander! Look forward to see you in Serbia (where our team will try to come back to World Group)
Photo credit: teaster photo by ATP, picture in text by ITF / Daviscup.com