Leander Paes' superb finish

AP

The Indian captain's two victories in the team's 3-2 defeat of Kazakhstan in the Davis Cup tie at Almaty places him fifth in the all-time win-loss record with 81 victories and 30 defeats, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

He is best known for his heroics in the Davis Cup arena. Leander Paes may have achieved quite a bit in the Olympics, Asian Games and the Grand Slams, but it is his gutsy performances in the Davis Cup that have captured the imagination of the Indian tennis fans.

The 33-year-old skipper of the Indian team, now a top-10 doubles player in the world, however, seems to be providing his fans less impressive footage, replacing some of those memorable pictures of the past when he conquered some of the top-10 players with sheer guts.

Yes, his recent singles victories — against Aqeel Khan of Pakistan on grass in Mumbai last year and Dmitriy Makeyev of Kazakhstan in the final match of the Davis Cup at Almaty on April 8 — have not endeared Leander to his fans, for the job of dealing with players with an unflattering four-figure ranking could have been left to Rohan Bopanna or Karan Rastogi who were originally scheduled to play the tricky fifth match.

Even as we question the decision of Leander to play in the deciding singles, it will be grossly unfair to find fault with his argument that he was the best equipped to guide India to safety in the top group of the zone.

Having won two of the three matches in India's 3-2 defeat of Kazakhstan on the fast indoor hard courts at Almaty (April 6-8), Leander now ranks fifth in the all-time win-loss record with 81 victories and 30 defeats. Only Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy (120-44), Ilie Nastase of Romania (109-37), Manuel Santana of Spain (92-28) and Gottfried von Cramm of Germany (82-19) are ahead of him.

Nearly 4500 players have competed in Davis Cup ever since the tournament began in 1900. And nearly all the top players have been proud to compete in the international team competition. Leander has a 48-21 record in singles and 33-9 in doubles in the 42 Davis Cup ties that he has played since he made his debut in the unforgettable doubles match with Zeeshan Ali against Japan in Chandigarh in 1990.

Leander, who won the bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics, could have easily overhauled Krishnan's impressive singles record of 50 wins by now had he not taken a back seat in the team after becoming the captain of the Davis Cup team in 2003.

Leander, who with Martin Damm won the doubles title at Indian Wells and reached the final at Miami, worked consistently on his endurance with his trainer after the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan at Namangan in February. He was confident that his legs would stand the challenge over five sets. He also knew that it was all about staying strong mentally in the deciding fifth match against Kazakhstan.

Eventually, Leander won the test of nerves after being down 6-7 (4), 1-4, cruising past Dmitriy Makeyev, an opponent 10 years younger to him and that much inexperienced. He won seven games in a row to tilt the balance and did not allow a single breakpoint on his serve. The Indian skipper scotched the hopes of the host with a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 triumph.

"It was the best option to the best of my knowledge,'' said Leander of his decision to play in the last match.

For Leander, it was all about winning, the niceties could wait. He is far too competitive to take chances in the name of building the team for the future. "The team comes first, and we have to win,'' said Leander.

It may also be pointed out that Leander has not lost a match in Davis Cup singles or doubles, ever since he lost the fifth rubber to Gouichi Motomura of Japan at Osaka in 2004. In fact, that has been his only defeat in the last five years in Davis Cup after India had been soundly beaten by Australia in 2002 in the World Group qualifying round. Bopanna, on the other hand, had won only two matches when India played Pakistan last April, and Rastogi is yet to win a match.

With India's next Davis Cup tie scheduled for February 2008, there is enough time for the boys to make progress.

THE RESULTS Relegation playoff: India beat Kazakhstan 3-2

Rohan Bopanna bt Dmitry Makeyev 6-2, 6-1, 6-2.

Karan Rastogi lost to Alexey Kedriouk 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (2)

Leander Paes & Rohan Bopanna bt Dmitry Makeyev & Alexey Kedriouk 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.

Rohan Bopanna lost to Alexey Kedriouk 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6.

Leander Paes bt Dmitry Makeyev 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.