Grit vs Talent

Men like Paes and Kumble share something in common — team-men to the core, their performances are reliably aggressive and emotionally charged particularly when a crucial contribution becomes necessary, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

Last fortnight in the Davis Cup decider against Aqeel Khan — a Pakistani player whose four-digit singles ranking would offend some club-level players — Leander Paes racked up a two sets to love lead before coming down with a severe bout of cramps. He lost the next two sets, before riding out the fifth.

The 32-year-old Indian star, it must be said, ultimately made a mountain of a molehill; his fitness levels were suspect considering he hadn't played a competitive singles match in almost a year. But given his experience, a semi-dehydrated Paes was always a safer bet than Rohan Bopanna. And, besides, this was the Davis Cup. Familiar territory. The latest display of chest-thumping, fist-pumping heroics carried Paes to his 78th win in Cup play. How much more does he have left in the gas tank? Makes you wonder sometimes, if Leander Paes is a bottomless pit.

Standing at five feet ten, Paes was never capable of regularly conjuring gargantuan serves. His groundstrokes have, upon occasion, lapsed into inconsistency. But at the net, the Indian is an entirely different proposition. A feathery pair of hands, coupled with stunning reflexes, helped Paes develop in the mid-nineties into a world-class doubles player, and over the years he has tuned those skills finer. Above all, he possesses a savage determination that overrides any physical limitations: even if his body is on the verge of exhaustion, he can psyche himself into thinking like a top player.

"I tried to move Aqeel around in the third and fourth sets, playing drop shots and lobs instead of going for winners, to tire him out," Paes said after the match. "It worked as Aqeel also took a medical time out in the fifth and from there on I knew I would win."

In the cut-throat world of professional sport, talent is an ambiguous entity, difficult to quantify. Without it, a sportsman cannot ordinarily hope to get very far; yet talent on its own steam — if there exists such a thing — offers no guarantee of success. If not accompanied by single-minded dedication, talent can be squandered; which is precisely what happened to Mark Philippoussis.

"There is in this world," writes Matthew Hollis, "one snowfall. Everything else is just weather." The poet is pleading the case of beauty over the banal; he is advising us that the notion of perfection is worth aspiring to. Consider for a moment this hypothesis: the undistinguished athlete huffs through his game, while the genius performs an action with effortless ease.

On the basis of such an unwise generalisation, it is easy to dismiss Lleyton Hewitt as an upgraded version of Michael Chang, a counter-puncher with limited shot-making skills who has relied too heavily on his ability to run down balls and to force his opponents into committing errors. It is true that Hewitt ascended to the top during a transitional phase when Pete Sampras's career was on the wane, and Roger Federer hadn't yet asserted himself.

While it is easy to mock Hewitt's tenacity, we forget that bloody-mindedness is a virtue that would more than compensate for an ugly backhand. To extend that point further, in some ways Rafael Nadal is a further improvement on the traditional counterpuncher — except, of course, the Spaniard employs heavy groundstrokes laced with spin.

Presumably though, nobody would dare call him graceless, considering the world number two presently leads Federer 3-1 head-to-head.

What, then, is talent? In this age of instant gratification, the word is used interchangeably with flair. Indeed, modern marketing strategies revolve around a perceived capacity to entertain. Take for instance one-day cricket, where a batsman's talent is mostly graded on a scale of destruction. This is not to suggest Virender Sehwag or M.S. Dhoni is anything but talented; on the other hand, how often does Rahul Dravid, a man blessed with immense concentration, get called gifted?

Meanwhile, Mohammed Kaif finds himself in the middle of a slump. His authoritative century for a Rajasthan Invitation XI against England seems a distant memory. The classy drives have since been replaced by tentative prods; he's usually gone these days before bowlers can begin to stray on to his pads.

His bat has discovered edges where there were none; it is as if his feet have sworn to take root at the crease. It's ironic that flashy fielders like Kaif (and Jonty Rhodes before him) should bat in relatively ungainly fashion; that their stance and backlift should so patently lack in beauty, otherwise characteristic of their breathtaking dives at cover or point. It comes as no surprise that the gritty Kaif, one of the best finishers in the game — though more an accumulator than a striker — has been overshadowed by the marvellously insouciant Yuvraj Singh.

Not so long ago, Kaif was regarded as a potential captain; now he struggles to hold his place in the national side.

He has the full support of his captain and coach, however (with good reason); Greg Chappell, for one, believes Kaif's problems are psychological. Hopefully this loss of form will prove temporary.

Another man, who has all but spilt his guts out for his country, is Anil Kumble. He came close in the literal sense, when he bowled in a 2002 Test against the West Indies in Antigua with a broken jaw. If that wasn't inspiring enough, he actually dismissed a batsman in that spell. Not any modest tail-ender, but — get this — Brian Lara.

Kumble's tremendous performance under pressure in Australia during the 2003-04 series placed his resilience beyond question; yet India's highest wicket-taker in both forms of the game has not impacted our consciousness in the manner that Sachin Tendulkar has. The unassuming leg-spinner from Bangalore has won more matches for India than any bowler in history — he even wiped out Pakistan in that famous one-man show in Delhi. Perhaps the greatest player never to have captained India in Tests, Kumble's worth might only be grasped after he retires.

Men like Kumble and Paes share something in common — team-men to the core, their performances are reliably aggressive and emotionally charged particularly when a crucial contribution becomes necessary.

There are others like weightlifter Karnam Malleswari, a former world champion in her category and the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, whose wholly physical achievements are to a significant extent the product of jaw-clamping grit and mental strength. At the other end of the spectrum, Chess Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand's staggering feats of mental virtuosity speak for themselves.

Returning to tennis, the men's game in India potentially faces a lengthy spell in the wilderness once Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi choose to retire.

Tennis, as an organised sport, attaches more importance to solo performances, but Paes, once ranked as high as world number 73 in singles during a highly competitive phase in the late nineties, functions best as part of a team: this much is obvious from his success as a doubles player. His Davis Cup record lends him the gravity of a titan — as has been extensively documented, the Olympic bronze medallist reserves his best for his country.

Patriotism might be an overrated virtue, but the image of an unreservedly tearful Paes wrapped in the tricolour is certainly arresting and hard to discard. It makes, at any rate, for great television.

The second string, comprising Prakash Amritraj, Rohan Bopanna and Harsh Mankad, has failed to crack the top 200, and India's Davis Cup hopes could prematurely rest with young Karan Rastogi. The talent is already in place; whether Rastogi will possess the required grit, only time can tell.

Whichever way you perceive it, we are witnessing the slow decline of one of India's greatest tennis players. Age is sneaking up on Paes; eventually it will rob him of his pace, his reflexes. But of one thing you can be sure: Leander Paes will not disappear quietly.