Leander stars in another thriller

IF ever there was pressure on a star sportsman, this was it. He may have won many a Davis Cup battle singlehandedly, but Leander Paes was never in such a situation before, to prove his credentials all over again, to a 100 million people.

The Indian team with captain Leander Paes, holding the National flag, celebrating its victory over New Zealand. Others from left are: T. D. Francis (Manager), Karan Rastogi, Sanjay Singh (Trainer), Mahesh Bhupathi, Punna Vishal, Nandan Bal (Coach) and Harsh Mankad. — Pic. AP-

It had been an one-man army for quite some time, but the Indian team and Leander never had it so tough in the Davis Cup arena before, because of the circumstances in the run-up to the Asia-Oceania Group `I' tie at the southern end of New Zealand, in Invercargill.

He had always prepared hard for Davis Cup, but Leander could hardly prepare for this one. The long spell of inaction following the detection of a brain lesion, and the fact that he had not played a singles match after April 6, 2003, weighed heavily against him, like the many kilograms of flesh that had made him feel heavy after medication.

To top it all, Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj, capable young men who can be trusted to beat lesser ranked opponents like the little known Kiwis, had been ruled out with bicep and tricep injuries. Leander hardly had anyone to support him in the tie but for Mahesh Bhupathi who had been ensuring the crucial doubles rubber for the last few years.

It was literally a pressure-cooker situation when the 21-year-old rookie, Simon Rea led 3-0 in the first set against Leander in the fifth rubber, trying to win the decisive point for New Zealand, against the 31-year-old star.

"You must be feeling the pressure'', the New Zealand team captain Bruce Derlin said, at this juncture, when Leander was barely four feet away from him, returning as he was, back to the court.

He may have been stating only the obvious, but it was stupid on the part of the Kiwi captain, out on his first Davis Cup assignment, to state the obvious, in provoking one of the finest Davis Cuppers of this era.

"It worked to my advantage. Once that happens, I am coming at you'', Leander said later, as he recalled the incident, that had fuelled the fire, that was burning within him, to do it one more time, to lead India to another memorable triumph.

Rea did win that set 6-4 and was 5-5 in the second when Leander stepped on the accelerator, breaking the Kiwi in the twelfth game to make it 1-1. In his inimitable style, Leander pumped his fists and yelled `yes' on the face of Rea, throwing his customary stare, a stare that had proved a nightmare for many a star player, forcing them to resign to their fate.

Leander Paes plays a return during the second reverse singles against Simon Rea. Leander, playing on all three days, won all his matches and clinched the tie for India. -- Pic. AP-

Turning the match around on its head, Leander raced away with the next two sets, bringing the curtains down on another of his majestic performances in the Davis Cup theatre.

"Once I got that second set, I looked at him in the eyes and his eyes dropped. I knew I had him'', Leander was to say later, as he provided an insight into what had happened.

It was not as if the Kiwi captain had made the only mistake of provoking Leander. The first mistake was to choose indoor carpet, a fast surface, that suited Leander's serve and volley game.

Maybe, the idea was to unsettle the Indian star after the Australian Open, played on rebound-ace. As it turned out, it did not work out that way, and proved another advantageous aspect for Leander. Maybe a slow surface would have tested his fitness, a lot better.

Thus, it was no surprise, for Leander at least, as to how well he played on the first day, to beat Mark Nielsen in straight sets, after the No.1 Indian Harsh Mankad had surrendered to Rea, ranked about 500 places below him on the ATP computer at around 800, in straight sets.

"Serve and volley is my game, and this is a fast court'', Leander said.

Anyway, he had done it to the formidable French in Frejus on clay in 1993, and had done it on grass umpteen times against some of the best in the business, and had revealed his class on hard courts as well. The Kiwis took a chance with indoor carpet, perhaps after having weighed the other options.

The first day was the most crucial, and the Kiwis had to pin Leander down. They possibly thought that they could pull a faster one on him on carpet! Once they failed to do so, with their own No.1 Nielsen, who had stretched the Indian ace to five sets at Wellington two years earlier, surrendering in straight sets, the Kiwis were literally staring down the barrel.

There was some hope for the host on the third day, after Leander and Mahesh had combined nicely on the second for another of their clinical fare, as India was forced to replace Harsh with rookie Punna Vishal. The Hyderabad lad had of course done well to make it to the final round of the ATP Tour event in Chennai a few weeks earlier, beating the 120-odd ranked Jeff Salzenstein of the US on the way, but he was too raw to win the clincher for India.

Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, who have been ensuring victory for India in the crucial doubles, accomplished it with a straight sets win over Mark Nielsen and Matthew Prentice. -- Pic. AP-

Vishal started well, with a break against Nielsen, but the Kiwi was far too superior on home turf to give a chance for the 20-year-old lad, who had the rare experience of being on the captain's chair while Leander and Mahesh did their duty on the second day. To perform the role of a captain even before he had played a rubber for India, directing one of the best doubles teams in the world, must have been a proud moment for Punna Vishal. But that was all he could carry from the tie.

The fifth rubber of a Davis Cup, when it is live, is all about mental toughness, rather than a test of your skills or physical fitness. Leander had passed that test many a time, and knew the answers by heart. The Kiwi, ten years younger to Leander, on the other hand, was learning a lot, though he was in no mood to digest the lessons, streaming down at him, from across the net.

Overall, it was a lesson that the Kiwis would not forget in a hurry. Incidentally, it was India's third successive victory over New Zealand, after the team had lost three times earlier, in 1975, 1976 and 1978.

It was for the 16th time that Leander was winning all his three matches in his 34th Davis Cup tie. Quite remarkably, India had won 24 of those ties, including Leander's debut match against Japan in Chandigarh in 1990, when the 16-year-old had partnered Zeeshan Ali to win the doubles rubber 18-16 in the fifth set.

In fact, India had lost only to the tennis heavy-weights Australia, US, Sweden, Czech Republic, and Britain in seven of those 10 ties. Leander could have won at least two of those ties, one against Britain in 1998 when he went down 9-11 in the fifth set against Rusedski, and in 1999 when he lost to Yong-Il Yoon after being up a matchpoint.

Pic. AP-

With his latest heroics, the Davis Cup magician also equalled Ramanthan Krishnan's record of highest number of wins for the country, 69, singles and doubles put together. While Krishnan did so in 43 ties, Leander accomplished the task in 34 ties. He thus jumped to the 11th spot in the all-time list, behind the likes of Nicola Pietrangeli (120) of Italy, Ilie Nastase (109) of Romania, Manuel Santana (92) of Spain, Gotfried Von Cramm (82) of Germany, Alex Metreveli (80) of Russia, Balazs Taroczy (76) of Hungary, Tomas Koch (74) of Brazil, Jacques Brichant (71) of Belgium, Esam Abdul-Aal (70) of Bahrain and Ion Tiriac (70) of Romania.

If most of us thought that Leander was on his way out, by taking a hint from the recent announcement that he would be the captain as well for the team, we were mistaken. He has taken the chance to literally lead from the front.

The idea may prove a stroke of genius, if it can bring Leander and Mahesh together, in what is perhaps the most crucial year in their career, the year of the Athens Olympics.

Harsh Mankad (Above) and Punna Vishal failed to live up to expectations and lost their respective matches rather tamely. This enormously increased the burden on Leander Paes and he proved his credentials yet again. — Pics. AP-

Leander left the captain's job to Mahesh midway through Harsh's match, to prepare for his own match, and it was Mahesh who was on the chair for Leander's matches. Mahesh had himself won the ties against the Netherlands in Jaipur and the one against Chile in Delhi, apart from lending his shoulders for the key doubles point in recent ties.

If these two can put their mind and heart together, along with their shoulders, there are few hurdles that they cannot jump, in the tennis world.

It will be Japan in Japan next for India in the second round, as the Japanese beat the Indonesians 3-2 in Jakarta. By then, Leander will have adequate support, with the possible return of Bopanna and Prakash taking a little pressure away from the champion campaigner, in tackling Takao Suzuki and Gouichi Motomura.