"I still want to be the best I can be"

WE envy athletes not merely because they perform feats that rest in our dreams, but because they are the epitome of physical well-being and vigour. As once we fumbled as young men, they are all fluent, athletic grace, the human body at its physical peak.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

WE envy athletes not merely because they perform feats that rest in our dreams, but because they are the epitome of physical well-being and vigour. As once we fumbled as young men, they are all fluent, athletic grace, the human body at its physical peak.

Leander Paes addresses a press conference at the Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando, Florida. With him are his father, Dr. vece Paes, and Dr. Clarence Brown of the Center. Leander is suffering from neurocysticercosis, a non-cancerous tumour inhis brain. -- Pic. AFP-

We can reconcile ourselves to the injured athlete, for that is an offshoot of competition, but there is something unbelievable, and horrific, about the young athlete struck down by illness. We see them as superhuman, as if only us mortals are touched by disease.

Leander Paes, he of the extraordinary athletic dance around the court, was for us the very representation of that marvellous vigour. Now, here he was, on the phone line from Orlando, in his hospital room, talking about the tubes in his arm, the tests on his brain, the possibility of a tumour, the slicing of nodules on his arms to check if they were cancerous. It seemed to still your heart.

As he says now, with some irony: "Athletes feel invulnerable, they take their body for granted. Every three months I do a physical check. The only part I don't check is my brain".

But there is another thing about the athlete beyond his mere soundness of body, and that is will, and resolve, and spirit. Qualities that defined Paes; qualities that still live strongly within him.

In the many times we talked, despite every effort at levity, fear and uncertainty shadowed most sentences. Would he be fine, would he play again, cruel questions hung unanswered in his hospital room. As he recalled: "Everything stopped the moment the doctor mentioned a tumour."

"It was", he said, "one of the first times things weren't in my control. When I had Osgood Schlatter's disease as a kid, and had to wear a metal brace on my leg, I still played. When I tore a hip muscle, I still played. But this, if it was cancer."

But nowhere, in his words, or attitude, did you hear the word "quit". "You know me", he said quietly . "I never go down without a fight". I reminded him we used to teasingly call him "Mr. 100 per cent" when he was young, so often did he use the phrase, and he said that had not changed.

Still, he remembers, with powerful clarity, the moment he knew, after all the days of silent trepidation, that it was not a tumour, but a parasitic infection that could be treated. "The doctor", he explained, "always used to knock on my door, and then come in, but this time he barged in, with a hop in his step, and told me to sit down, and I knew it had to be good news. He told me it wasn't a tumour, and he kept talking, but I had stopped listening".

Still, it will be weeks before he can train, months before he plays, and while he does not ask "why me?", somewhere in the back of his mind he must wonder, "why now?". There is never an appropriate moment for illness, but the timing could not be worse. Unknown to most, he was in the midst of a quiet, powerful revival of his career, anxious to prove, to himself most of all, that his average last year was a hiccup not a sign, that he was still good enough.

Last year, at the Davis Cup against Australia in September, he seemed out of shape, out of tune. Mahesh Bhupathi and he had finally split, injury had been lurking, he could not find a reliable partner, and as his form disappeared, so did sponsors.

He had played doubles in 24 tournaments, won just two (one in January itself in Chennai), reached only one other final and semi-final, and lost in the first round 11 times. At the Grand Slams, his record was second round (Australian), semi-final (French), first round (Wimbledon), second round (US Open). It wasn't the Paes he, or we, knew.

"It was definitely the lowest moment of my career", he says now from Orlando. "I remember the night after I lost in the first round of doubles in Wimbledon last year. I went home, and smashed a racket in my room. I'd had enough. I called my Dad and said I'm done".

He could have quit, right then, and it would have been fine, for his career has been inspiring, uplifting, with his Olympic medal, the constant Davis Cup heroics, the doubles Grand Slams, the singles win over Pete Sampras.

But a man, whose most powerful weapon has been his self-belief, saw no pleasure in the easy way out, saw no worthiness in slipping away without a struggle. On that terrible Wimbledon night, he says his father told him to sleep over it; he also asked Leander, "Have you reached all your goals?" "But I hadn't", he says. "I still wanted to have the best Davis Cup record in India, I still wanted to play my fourth Olympics".

And so he set to work. First, he shed his excess weight, 18 pounds of it, returning to his playing weight of 178. Then he strengthened his upper body, working on his back, abdominals, triceps, wrist (he says he's added 15mph to his serves because of it). And then, after much scouting, he found in David Rikl the partner he required.

It was an interesting partnership, for Paes had to reconfigure his style. "David's not a powerful player (and neither is Paes), and so I had to become more solid". Flashiness wouldn't work, consistency would; the great shot was replaced with the percentage one. And to complete the transformation he even exchanged his racket, forsaking his Prince for a Babolat, which, because he felt he could whip it faster through the air, allowed him more spin on his serve.

At the Australian Open itself this year, he was a new man, or at least a different one. He won the mixed with Martina Navratilova, reached the men's semis with Rikl, and I approached him about doing a story on his resurrection, but he demurred. "It's only one tournament. I need to do this through the year, to be consistent. Let me first do something, let me prove myself, then we'll talk".

Through the spring, and the summer, he proved his point, but still he pushed himself, still he said the story was not done, still he insisted there was more to do. But the difference was obvious: by autumn this year, he had played 18 tournaments, won three, reached two other finals, reached four other semi-finals, and lost in the first round just three times. Even better, he had won the mixed with Navratilova at Wimbledon, too, and his men's doubles record at the Slams was quarter-final (Australian), semi-final (French) and semi-final (Wimbledon).

The quest to reinvent, and revive his game, to demonstrate that 14 years since he made his Davis Cup debut his desire still flamed, was almost done. And then, instead of wearing a US Open identity card he was given a hospital bracelet.

In a way, through his results, through the affection with which Navratilova holds him, through the return of sponsors, he has already proved himself. In a way, he begins again. He made one comeback, now life has demanded another. But his courage last year, his commitment to re-find his game, are weapons that will drive him again. "I have the advantage", he says "of knowing I can do it, that I can remodel myself".

Always he has been a player who chases goals, and they are unfinished. There is Athens next year. There is young Prakash Amritraj and Rohan Bopanna waiting to take his singles Davis Cup spot. There is one more chapter yet to be written.

He cannot wait for the tests to finish, the further MRI scans to be done, the tubes to be pulled out his arm. He cannot wait for the taste of sweat, the burn of competition, the smell of victory in the sun.

"I always used to say that I want to be the best player I can be. I know it's boring to say that, but it's the truth. I still want to be the best I can be".

What he's trying to tell me, I think, lying in his hospital bed, is that the spirit of the fighting man still rages within him. And no damn parasite in his brain is going to kill that.