I’ve never been much into autographs, but I have always wanted to shake Leander Paes’s hand. Shake that magnificent right palm with a firm Eastern Grip, the way one would hold a tennis racquet. Despite this declaration, please, for the love of god or Roger Federer, don’t mistake me for a Paes fan. I don’t care too much for his personal achievements (his Davis Cup feats and that watershed bronze at the Atlanta Olympics from the previous century, both when performing for the country, are a different matter). Why, you ask? Because if any self-respecting tennis aficionado tells you that they take doubles — Paes’s specialisation for the last 15 years — seriously, they are perhaps Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza respectively.
The doubles field is depleted, the game-play mediocre and the thrill of a long, gruelling match non-existent. But, same-sex partners on a tennis court at least make marginally more sense than tennis’s third format (and the sport’s equivalent of Tinder) — mixed doubles. Winning Grand Slams here, as Paes has done seven times (including his most recent one at the Australian Open, with twice-retiree Martina Hingis) gives you the same amount of street cred as your next-door Ludo champion. Outside of India, at least. Here, Ludo champions are worshipped.
To tell you what the rest of the world and Slam organisers think about inter-gender tennis, consider this. Yuki Bhambri, the Indian ranked 414th in the world, received $34,500 for losing in the first round (in straight sets, no less) of the men’s singles at this year’s Aussie Open. Paes earned merely twice that, $71,250, for beating the entire mixed doubles field and lifting the damned trophy.
Call this blinkered if you want, but tennis has only one category worth tuning into — men’s singles, a narrower and lonelier court, which Paes’s fantastic hands and not-so-fantastic legs haven’t taken on since he was in his twenties. Now, he’s 41, and possesses a waistline to almost fit the number. But, those hands have retained their reflexes — fast as ever, chopping, volleying, hacking and smashing away at the net, weaving wizardry. And, those hands, the key to his longevity and the reason he remains India’s best current-day tennis player even at this age, have been immortalised by one of the greats of the game, Andre Agassi.
In Open, his spare-no-punches autobiography, Agassi wrote: “Paes is a flying, jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs. Then, behind all his junk, he flies to the net, covers so well that it seems to work. After an hour, you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly.”
Paes never did beat Agassi, but he did thrash (6-3, 6-4) his great rival Pete Sampras in their only meeting in 1998, giving the Indian a 100 per cent record over one of the greatest players of all time. I still remember vividly my reaction when news of that historic moment filtered into my TV-void boarding school in south India, a few days after it had occurred in North America. It didn’t matter that Paes promptly lost in the next round (pardonable, since it was to Goran Ivanisevic) — our young hearts were filled with hope. But, the early Paes tended to do that to us Indians a lot — uplift us from sporting mediocrity.
Even before he turned pro, Paes allowed us to dream big by bagging the junior Wimbledon (1990) and US Open (1991) titles. Once pro, he beat Fernando Meligeni of Brazil in Atlanta and achieved a feat of utmost significance; it was India’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years. We were being set up for a great letdown, however. In 2001, after losing to Nicolas Escude in the second round of Wimbledon, Paes decided that a Grand Slam tennis court was no place to walk alone, and he began focussing his energies on an already thriving doubles career. He won, of course — a lot. But, somewhere, we as a nation (and I say this despite his never-say-die Davis Cup performances) lost.
Tennis lost, too. Paes had (and still has) hands worthy of its greatest format, but he chose to utilise them where they mattered least. The erudite sportswriter Rohit Brijnath neatly puts a ribbon on our emotions with this description: “He was technically defective, and too short, and his game too high risk. 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 singles event. But, somehow he’d manage to transcend his averageness when his nation’s flag flew.”
True. No other Indian has represented the country in more Olympics than Paes, who is on the verge of a seventh appearance at Rio next year. And few can question his commitment for the land; when India is emblazoned on his back, the patriot has scalped enough big-name singles players to fill a duffel bag. But, herein lies my problem.
If only Paes figured out that even while playing for himself (on the men’s singles tour, that is), he was in fact playing for the pride of a nation, he wouldn’t have been just India’s best tennis player but this country’s greatest ever sportsman — across fields. And, just for that, when I shook his hand in Melbourne after he won yet another doubles title in 2012 that no one else but us Indians seemed to give a damn about, I almost didn’t let go.
Aditya Iyer has covered cricket, football, tennis and other sports for the Indian Express for the past six years.