An evening to remember

Indeed, it was a memorable evening, an evening when celebrities graced the occasion and there was magic in the air.

Leander Paes receives The Sportstar Sportsperson of the Year (1996) award from Ramesh Krishnan.

Even as Leander Paes, nattily dressed in a suit, strode into the ballroom of the Taj Coromandel Hotel, sending the cameramen into action, and putting a smile on everyone's lips, he muttered, "This is a special evening for me."

Indeed, it was. It was in Chennai that he learnt his tennis. The Sportstar was a magazine he grew up with, and here he was in the city of his destiny to receive The Sportstar Sportsperson of the Year award.

The image still lingers ... Leander on the podium in Atlanta, the bronze medal on his neck shining even more brightly than his diamond earring, and his face glowing with a sense of accomplishment. Dreams do come true.

For a nation starved of success in the Olympics, it was a moment to beat all moments and Leander was a popular choice for the award. Leander was calm, collected, and courteous at the function. He even found time to play around with the kids and for once was stumped for an answer, when a little one pointed to his picture in a sports collage and naughtily asked, " Who is this uncle?"

It was a different Leander. Not the fist-clinching, all-action version that fans are used to seeing. But then, off the court, the contrast in the man is startling.

The hall was colourfully decorated, there was a mood of celebration all around, and even the rain lashing the city couldn't keep the spirits down.

Perhaps it was only fitting that despite the heavy downpour, the function was a success, for hasn't Leander, time and again, battled the odds to come out triumphant, especially while turning out for the country?

Leander, surely must have been inspired by the deeds of India's greatest ever tennis player, Ramanathan Krishnan. And to make the occasion more special, R. Krishnan received the magazine's Legend of Indian Sport award. Both Leander and Krishnan were presented Rs. 1 lakh each, a citation and a trophy.

Time has not managed to wean that freshness away from Krishnan's face.

What shines through in the man is his quiet dignity, and poise. There is a timeless quality about some sportsmen and Krishnan is definitely one of them.

In fact it was a heady cocktail, the exuberance of youth - Leander - and the wisdom of the old - R. Krishnan.

And the fact that Krishnan's son Ramesh was the chief guest meant players from three generations of Indian tennis were on stage. Also present was Krishnan's doubles partner and India's former Davis Cup non-playing captain, Naresh Kumar.

Then there was the star on the Indian badminton firmament, Aparna Popat, who was one of the Young Achievers for the year '96, for making it to the final of the world junior championship in Denmark.

The other Young Achiever, P.Harikrishna, given the award for winning the World under-10 title in Spain, was busy with a chess tournament in France and was represented by his grandfather, T. Ranga Rao. N. Ram, Editor, The Sportstar, congratulated Leander in his welcome address.

In an entertaining speech, Ramesh threw light on Leander's never-say-die spirit, his aggression, his selfless nature and his passion for the country.

"Leander relished a combat," Ramesh said, and added that the young Indian actually thrived in such situations as he was able to lift his game when it counted the most.

The Davis Cup team was a family and Leander really contributed, said Ramesh. He said Leander could raise the spirits of the team. Stressing on the fact that tennis players in India came from a small genetic pool, he noted the contribution made by Leander's father Dr. Vece Paes, who was a member of India's bronze medal winning team at the Munich Olympics. Since his mother Jennifer too was an Olympian, in basketball, it was only natural that Leander took to sports.

Ramesh wanted Leander to bring more laurels to the country. "When I open the sports pages of The Hindu, I read some good news. I read all the bad news on the front page," he said bringing the roof down.

In his brief reply, but "one that came straight from the heart," Leander acknowledged the role of the Brittania Amritraj Trust in his development as a tennis player.

He also thanked Ramesh for being a role model, R. Krishnan for his words of wisdom, Naresh Kumar for all his advice and encouragement, and his parents for making him what he is.

His father, Vece Paes, was scheduled to be at the function but could not make it. Later, Leander, in private, said, " it would have been nice had he been able to come."

But it must have come as some consolation to Leander that Naresh Kumar, who was like a father figure to him as the non-playing captain of the Indian Davis Cup team, was present at the function.

In a speech laced with humour, Naresh, as immaculate and as articulate as ever, revealed the difficulties he had in handling fire and ice, Leander and Ramesh.

"During his match against Leconte in Frejus (India scored a sensational upset over France on clay), Leander's eyes were bloodshot. I had to tell him, 'Relax, take it easy.' While Ramesh was walking around as if nothing had happened in his matches. To him I had to say, 'come on Ramesh."

He also spoke at length about Krishnan's greatness as a tennis play- er, his modesty, his impeccable manner on the court, and his discipline.

Describing Krishnan as the greatest tennis player India had produced, Naresh Kumar recalled some of his great Davis Cup wins, against Rod Laver in Boston and Thomas Koch in Calcutta.

Krishnan deserved all the more praise because at the height of his powers he was without a 'guru', Naresh remarked and said the two of them played together, travelled together, stayed together, and never

"In mathematics two plus two makes four, but in our case it made seven." He joked how the western press once requested him to act as an interpreter to Krishnan because the latter spoke "as fast as an AK 47."

He noted legends were a great thing for sport but lamented many of them led a life in obscurity after their days in the sun. " We have to bring them back into the mainstream." Towards the end of the address, he once again turned his attention towards Leander and remarked,

"This is not enough. We want more from you. It is not enough to be in the doubles final. We want you to be in the singles final."

In his brief address, Ramanathan Krishnan thanked The Hindu group, Naresh Kumar, and goaded Leander to reach greater heights. "I am a player of the past. Leander is the player for the future."

Aparna Popat said the award would motivate her to perform better. She attributed her success to coach Prakash Padukone, her parents, and "God, without whose blessings nothing is possible."

Harikrishna's grandfather Ranga Rao, thanked The Sportstar for its encouragement and support. S. Krishnan, Associate Editor, Sports, The Hindu, presented framed citations to the awardees, Nirmal Shekar, Tennis Correspondent, The Hindu and The Sportstar read the citations and the programme was compered by Dr. Sumanth Raman, a well known TV presenter.

A dinner followed the speeches and later Leander described the evening as "great fun." Aparna confessed she was a little nervous before her speech as there were so many illustrious persons on the stage. But she said she enjoyed every bit of it.

Indeed, it was a memorable evening, an evening when celebrities graced the occasion and there was magic in the air.

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