He doesn't SURRENDER

Leander Paes' career was, and is, more than about tennis. It was a defiant cry for glory that resonated across the Indian sporting landscape, but alas not as loudly as it should have. But still you think it was heard, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

THE words were like the foundation of his faith, the essence of his being a player, and when he came alive on court, his desire undressed and laid bare for all to see, you could almost hear the words, for they had become his hymn.

RAJEEV BHATT

The words were scrawled in 1993, way back then when he was just 20 and already jack-hammering himself into our consciousness. The words were not his either, but written for him in a book called Mental Toughness Training for Sports. On the first page, the author, sports psychologist Jim Loehr, had scribbled:

"Leander — you have true greatness. Never stop believing and never surrender. Go for it".

Loehr was not to know then how right he was. Greatness as we traditionally know it, Leander Paes never achieved. No Grand Slam singles titles, no basket of ATP singles titles, no Top 20 ranking, not even a Davis Cup final.

But maybe greatness of the Paes kind is something altogether different, an idea beyond titles, more a fulfilling of the self. Perhaps it is a player who embraces his ideal tightly; who stays unflinchingly true to a cause (Davis Cup) every year, every tie, on any surface, small city or big, large crowd or small; who somehow, when the moment calls, is stirred to transcend his average-ness (serve slower than Venus on some days, faulty backhand, erratic forehand, poor baseline balance) and become a special player.

Leander Paes did not just rattle reputations in Davis Cup, or lose just once to a player ranked lower than him in cup play, his accomplishments went far beyond a win-loss column: he exceeded his limited potential, repeatedly, and he did it because he did not understand surrender, and seemed to salivate like some Pavlovian dog at the mention of competition, and because he made Playing for India his own personal anthem.

He once said, when the umpire called, "Game India, there are no limits in my mind. That's what I live for" and although we'd heard all this patriotic chest-beating before, from cricketers and hockey players and badminton players and football players till it just seemed to be regurgitated on demand every time a microphone was proffered, him we believed because he made us believe it.

When he played it was evident, immediately, this was not a job for him but his pleasure, he wore his emotion unashamedly, nakedly, triumphantly, and because it was so deeply and exquisitely personal to him, it became personal for us. You, sitting there in the stands, a stranger to him, you felt sometimes this bizarre connection, as if he was sweating for you. There were hard-bitten, been-there-seen-that journalists at the Atlanta Olympics who were more or less kicked out of the press box for cheering and went and sat in the stands and cheered on, and after his bronze medal win Leander was crying and so were they. Crying? Yes, me, too, and how do you explain that.

An oft-repeated statement by Harsha Bhogle has become in a sense a defining of Paes' legacy. When he wrote, way back in 1999, that India's World Cup cricket team should take Paes along, for what he lacked in cricketing skills he'd make up in heart, there, right then, he'd located not just the soul of the man but what he meant to us.

AP

Paes moved us, it was simple as that. We were surrounded by gifted cricketers and adroit hockey players, and he owned none of their stylish skills, but you knew this, he would try. Nothing more, just give it his best shot. Silk no, steel yes. And not just that, he was also undaunted, undefeated in the mind, unmoved by higher-ranked opponents, unafraid of court surface, a short, electric, raging, pounding, lunging package of defiance. When he pumped his fists, a man of constant demonstration, of endless theatre, something happened: in the stands, the small fists of small boys would clench in echo. There is no less dramatic way to say it: this was a man to have on your side.

And because we were used to excuses, and whinges about substandard facilities, and mental frailty under pressure, and players performing as if doing a job and packing up and going home, or safe-guarding their averages, or not passing to each other, we were not accustomed to someone like him, committed so purely to his cause.

And so in response we did something unusual: we gave him our trust. We knew he might get beaten but he wouldn't let us down and for once we appreciated the difference. People actually, and this was uncommon to so many sports in India, did not heckle or criticise him when he lost but empathised with him, for he appeared bereft, empty, as if something had died within him. We kept the faith because he did.

Paes at 31, 15 years from when he started as Cup player, in a way is still showing us how it should be done. In a recent tie last fortnight against Uzbekistan, now the playing captain of the team, he took the responsibility of playing the first singles, won it, then on the third day, even though chasing Ramanathan Krishnan's Davis Cup singles record, opted out to let Harsh Mankad have a go. In a way, from a man who discovered his true identity within the team structure, who swore by the idea of togetherness, we expected no less.

Over the years if there was an unfortunate offshoot to all this, it was that Paes often got taken for granted: we just expected him to be there, every year, every tie, expected him whatever his form or injury status to find a way. One day he will be gone, abruptly, racquet hung up, rage receded, fists finally unclenched, captain's chair empty.

But he should not be forgotten, for his career has been not just a joyous ride but an instruction. He was far from a perfect man, and his and Mahesh Bhupathi's fractious and silly split proved it, but he was also a formidable teacher.

He told us, this 100 per cent business, it actually works; he informed us that if you give everything of yourself, stretch your talent however meagre to its extremities, all manner of miracles may unfold, and even if they didn't the effort you put in allowed for a sense of worthiness; he showed us courage could compensate to some degree at least for skill; he demonstrated that if you believed you could overreach your limits then you would; he revealed that it did not matter what a computer said of Jacob Hlasek, Henri Leconte, Arnaud Boetsch, Wayne Ferreira, they were human and thus fallible.

He told us what it means to be in love with a sport and confirmed these romances were fulfilling; he reminded us that the Indian athlete is not an idea but a reality for he played as if attached to some high voltage wire; he illustrated that it was just fine to be demonstrative, to shake a fist or eyeball an opponent, that you could walk a fine line between aggression and gamesmanship, that sometimes self-belief requires its expression.

He was, and remains, a lesson to his peers in Indian sport that achievement demands more than mere felicity with a stick or bat or pistol or boot, he is a walking tutorial in the fact that even if you own no sublime skill success can be hunted down.

His career was, and is, more than about tennis. It was a defiant cry for glory that resonated across the Indian sporting landscape, but alas not as loudly as it should have. But still you think it was heard.

He was a representation of the art of the possible, and in all this talk of a New India, of Rajyavardhan Rathore, Narain Karathikeyan, Ritwik Bhattacharya, Sania Mirza, Anju George, we sometimes forget that he is the spiritual leader of this movement.

He challenged himself and with it a generation because he lived the words on the first page of a book. Leander Paes never stopped believing, he never surrendered.