Leander rises above the elements

BY the end of March, the temperature in Chennai was quite high coupled with increasing humidity. I was looking forward to my visit to New Zealand to, as the youngsters would say, 'chill out' for a week.

Wellington was my destination and this was for the semi-final tie in the Asia-Oceania Davis Cup competition.

I have been to New Zealand on several occasions and have known the weather to be very unpredictable. With this in mind, my luggage included track-suit, winter-jacket, gloves, woollen cap, sun-glasses, lip balm, skin lotion and sun-visor. And I got to use all of the above during the course of the afternoon of the final Sunday as I watched Leander Paes win the pivotal singles match to put us ahead 3-1.

Leander, of course, is our kingpin and the Kiwis had gone to great lengths to make playing conditions as uncomfortable as possible for him. Leander likes a very lively ball and hence they chose the exact opposite. Our man likes warm weather (in fact, he has confessed to finding the Chennai winter a bit cold!) and they chose windy Wellington. The pre-tournament information sheet stated that the average temperature during this time of the year would be 18 degrees Celsius But the weather was much much cooler. It was in single digits quite often and this together with icy cold Antarctic winds contributed to a wind chill factor that caused temperatures to plummet to sub-zero. And lastly, Leander likes a fast indoor court and... you guessed it, we played on a slow outdoor court!

But Leander does not let these minor details bother him. Arriving there on April Fool's day, he went about his task in a business-like manner.

Normally, we would have liked to have played some prank or other but we were all so tired from our journey that the day passed off quietly.

New Zealand is the farthest we could go to play within our zone. It took us all a couple of days to get over our jet-lag. We decided to go with our usual line-up of Harsh Mankad and Leander Paes for singles and Leander and Mahesh Bhupathi for the doubles.

Harsh Mankad opened up against New Zealand's No.1, Mark Nielsen. We felt that this was our toughest match and in a sense, a good start. If we lost, it was no big deal but if Harsh were to spring an upset, we would have struck a big blow. He did play a good first set but we were all disappointed to see the way he faded after that. The Kiwi was too strong for him but Harsh could have done better than the solitary game he won in the last two sets.

I have watched Harsh play closely over the last couple of years and he has had a tough baptism. He has trouble playing outdoors (Harsh plays college tennis in the U. S. and the bulk of his matches are indoors). Another problem is his tendency to get too tense before a big occasion.

This is fairly common but he must learn to deal with it. For a small man, he wastes an awful lot of nervous energy. We all got a kick out of walking past his room at 5 p.m. on that Thursday afternoon and Harsh had already placed his breakfast order for the next morning on his door. It is good to plan ahead but this was taking it to a new level!

The stage was now set for Leander. He started with a workman-like win over Alistair Hunt. The Kiwi played much better than we anticipated and Leander served extremely well to win in straight sets. One break of serve in each set decided the match.

By Saturday morning, the rain set in. Leander and Mahesh were up against Daniel Willman and James Shortall, two players who had not featured in the singles on Friday. The Kiwis had not pinned much hope on the doubles but instead had planned to wear Leander down and soften him for the singles match on Sunday. And the rain was certainly helping their cause.

Play did get underway at 5 p.m. under floodlights and we did manage to squeeze two sets in. Our duo played well to win them both. A little after 6 p.m., the Kiwis appealed against bad light and the match was postponed till 9.40 a.m. on Sunday. Leander had to work overtime on the last day.

Leander and Mahesh won the third set in half an hour and the referee granted him a 45-minute break to unwind and get himself up for the all important singles match.

Leander started the match in 4th gear and went up by a set and 4 games to 1 playing faultless tennis. He dropped his serve for the first time in the tie at that juncture, but quickly regrouped to win the second set and built up a 3-0 lead in the third set. For the first time all weekend, the sun was shining and it was warm.

But within a matter of minutes, I could see dark clouds blowing in from the south bringing in rain. Amidst all this, Leander lost his serve and with Nielsen serving at 2-3, 40-15, play was halted.

And now the mental battle began. For Leander felt he had missed a huge opportunity and let his opponent into the match. The Kiwi was making full use of the reprieve and his game picked up. We were back on court at 3 p.m. By the time the players could warm up, the rains came down yet again and sent us in for another hour. Play resumed at 4.30 p.m. with the light fading fast. The floodlights were switched on.

Nielsen took off from where he had left and in quick time won the third set and also the fourth. The momentum had clearly shifted and a live fifth rubber looked a probability. In which case, it would have been postponed till Monday morning.

But Leander had other things in mind. He raised his level a few notches and broke through to lead 2-0 in the fifth set. At which point, Leander played the game of the tie. Down 15-40 and again advantage out, he literally willed himself to great heights and held on to the game. It was quite incredible! With that, Leander had broken the will of his opponent and though Nielsen fought hard the rest of the way, Leander closed it out at 6-1.

Leander has added another glorious chapter to his outstanding Davis Cup record. We had lost to New Zealand thrice in the 70s and he has led us to our maiden victory. And what is more, he did it in style. We were all able to board our flights on Monday morning to return home. Just as originally planned!