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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 April 2006, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
Leander Paes - setting the standard

By Rohit Brijnath

One day his worn out legs will revolt, his lungs will mutiny, his shoulder will press charges, and then, finally, reluctantly, he'll drag himself off court, mothball his passion, lock away his rage.

Leander Paes
Paes has always risen to the occasion
He'll go one day, but we won't forget, we can't, we shouldn't.

In all the thrill of India's one-day cricket demolition of England, maybe you saw him for a minute, when the old man with the boy's face took his body racked with cramps and tears, took skills rusted by inactivity (he's played just three singles match in four-and-half years on the ATP Tour), to another five-set deciding win in the Davis Cup.

So, the opponent was Pakistan, not quite a tennis power, and the tie wasn't some World Group showdown but an Asia Oceania Group forgettable confrontation, but it may not matter to you but it's everything to him.

If he was India's salvation, then the Cup is his. As he said once: "Most people see Davis Cup as pressure on their shoulders. For me Davis Cup puts pressure under my shoulders, pressure that lifts me up".

'Place of elation'

For 16 years India's been calling and Leander Paes has been rising, his 78 wins-30 losses (singles, doubles combined) putting him in the all-time top 10 list of win-loss records in the history of the Davis Cup.

In 40 ties, 32 times he's played three matches (two singles and doubles), in 16 of those occasions he's won every match.

Paes managed to transcend his averageness when his nation's flag flew

For 16 years, he's played powerful nations and less reputed ones, beaten players ranked hundreds of numbers ahead of him (Jacob Hlasek, Goran Ivanisevic, Arnaud Boetsch, Henri Leconte, Wayne Ferreira, Jiri Novak) and lost only once, maybe twice, to a player ranked below him.

But this is not about numbers, it can't be, for you can't statistically measure a man's stomach for a fight, no figure can be put on desire.

When I call him last week, five days after the Pakistan tie, he mentions his calves are still aching, and I jocularly ask, "So how many body parts aren't complaining?", and he replies with a laugh, "Only the heart".

This pain is his pleasure, it is the sweet ache of accomplishment. When he gets into a tight finish in Davis Cup play, he arrives at a place of elation so pure he finds it hard to describe. At best he explains, "there comes a time when the adrenaline and euphoria make it feel like you're having an out of body experience".

Giving his best

For him, playing with INDIA emblazoned on his back has not been just job, duty, fun, but a fulfilling of himself. As he says: "There is a purity present which is not about beating a face, or a name, but conquering your own deepest challenges, lifting your body and soul to its highest being."

Leander Paes
Paes - 'will always give it his best'

Everyone who has watched Leander Paes play has a story. Mine is corny. In 20 years of sports writing, no player has done what he did to me. On the day in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics, as he battled stuttering form to win bronze, the strangest thing happened. I cried.

It wasn't just because a nation of a billion had been tired of mediocrity, had been waiting so long, 44 years at that point, for one more individual Olympic medal, just to show we belonged, to feel briefly empowered.

It was more than that. You cared because he cared. Because he was technically defective, and too short, and his game too high risk, but he'd fight every flaw, he'd front every challenge, he'd tilt wildly at windmills.

This was not a great player by any stretch, hadn't ever made the ATP top 50, once only got to the third round of a grand slam event. But somehow he'd manage to transcend his averageness when his nation's flag flew.

He'd move you because when he played for India he did that simplest of things. He tried.

Sheer commitment

It didn't matter whether the tie was played in a forgotten stadium, at home or abroad, on clay or on cow dung, if three men comprised the crowd, if not a journalist was there to record it. He'd give it his best.

No, he'd give it more, he'd reach within to find things you never believed he owned. In late 2003 he was lying in a hospital with a lesion in his brain, unaware for a while if he'd live, let alone play again; in early 2004, he was back, winning three matches against New Zealand in biting cold.

Leander Paes
Paes 'did that most quaint of things: he inspired'
It made him unique in the Indian sporting landscape for even when he lost he didn't disappoint you, because you couldn't ask more from him, all that emotion, desire, wilfulness we want from our athletes, he'd left it all there on the court for you to see.

Things have changed somewhat now, but in his beginning years of cup play, Indian athletes weren't known for their spirit, our cricket teams lacked intent, most of our Olympic athletes fell back when it mattered, but he was different. He did that most quaint of things: he inspired.

And this is the key to Paes, the essence of him, he could lift himself, he could lift teams, he could lift us. As the eminent Indian sportswriter, Nirmal Shekar of The Hindu put it neatly this week: "You measure every other (Indian) champion of the era against Leander when it comes to commitment to the country's cause."

We still don't know, and perhaps we never will, why, and how, he altered from ordinary player to extraordinary one when India summoned him. It is bewildering to us, and in some ways inexplicable to him.

As he says: "I don't know, I don't want to know, I can't figure it out, I guess some things are just to be enjoyed and appreciated, but for me there was no greater feeling on this planet."

If you would like to send your views on this column, please use the form below this selection of comments.


Leander is simply awesome! We all wonder and debate as to what is it that we in Indian lack to win at the Olympics. We can stop debating and look in to that part of Leander's body that is not aching, after that deciding 5-setter - his heart. I was proud recently to click 'India' next to Leander's name at the Atlanta Olympic park, roll of honor.
Denis Xavier, India

Good story but what a pity that its over-written and maudlin to the point of being funny; where a simple narration of Leander's acheivements would have done, the writer fell in love with his own, rather over-effusive style. DOES THE BBC WEB SITE HAVE EDITORS?
Rumi JN, SanFrancisco

One of my all time favourite players, you make me proud to be an Indian. I wish you all the best for the future, but do take care of yourself. Your well-being means a lot to all of us. Thank you for all that you have done and would like to have done.
S, India

Leander has been one of the gratest sportsman that India has ever produced. Whenever I watched him play, I would admire his fighting spirit and his athletic ability.
Blaise De Souza, U.S.A.

Rohit forgot to mention the double partnership between Leander and Mahesh Bhupati who briefly reigned as doubles number one and reached the finals of doubles (and won two) of the grandslams. Also worth mentioning is Leander's partnership with Martina Navratilova for mixed doubles. Two decades hence when Indians will look back at their sporting history and greatness, Leander will be there somewhere at the top.
Satya Dash, Uk

In this age when top players on the tour prefer to save their energy to win grand slams and fatten their purses, Leander is an exception. He could easily just conserve his aging body to win more doubles tournaments and earn that extra million, but he prefers to remain above that vulgar calling for money.
Arjun, India

He is the number one Indian nationalist athlete... Although, I am not keen tennis follower, he is my favourite. We salute Leander for the service he did to the country. Thanks.
Ranjay Singh, U S A

Leander Paes embodies the fighting spirit and is a worthy model for other Indian athletes. Kudos to him!
Srikant, India

I am proud of this great Sportsmen. He more than deserved this column.
Shreyans Kothari, India

ROHIT BRIJNATH has done perfect justice to Paes. one of the greatest sportsman. There is nothing much one can add, except thanking him on behalf of thousands of Paes's fans.
N.G. KRISHNAN, BANGALORE, INDIA

This article is a near perfect tribute to a great warrior and true son of Mother India. Whenever he plays on court no one can have any dobuts that he is not playing for him self nor do for the game of tennis but yeah...just his dedication to tricolor...whenever he saw tricolor flying he gave all he had to raise his game for the mother land...Thanks to Mr. Brijnath for thinking of writing such words about legend in Indian Tennis..Wish to see such words and respect from India about Dhanaraj Pillay, for whom life means hockey and tricolor.
Praful Tailor, India/US

Hi, ya nice article about my hero.Thanks a lot.yes, He delivers when it matters.
Jegatheesan, India

A great write up on one of greatest indian sportsman and patriot. When Leander Paes is on court one thing is guaranted however big the opponent is , he won't let indian flag down.
shashi rai, USA

It is the human spirit that makes your transcendent pain, limitations and other obstacles. Paes is a perfect example of that spirit; his spirit to play for the country and to inspire its budding sportsmen/sportswomen is unparalleled. Hats off for this legend.
Punit Anand, Canada

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