Taking Leander for granted

ROHIT BRIJNATH

SO who did he play? Dr. Nobody and Mr. Unknown, or something to that effect. Two fellers called Hunt and Neilsen, whom the ATP computer struggles to remember and we certainly can't.

And what land is that? New Zealand. Whose tennis history would fit, you'd think, on a matchbox cover with room left over.

And what round was it? Semi-final? Quarter-final? At least, World Group first round? Naah, some zonal play-off, in a stadium no one's heard of, in front of a crowd smaller than you get for supermarket prettiest baby competitions.

So tell me this, why should we care? Because he won.

Because more or less, when it's Davis Cup, and Game India, he always wins.

Because usually I get tired by all this faux patriotism, that players repeat ad nauseum, about playing for flag and country, and how they get goose bumps, and that the nation's honour is at stake, after which of course they keel over quietly, but he, when he says it, it has a freshness, an intent.

Because it doesn't matter what the surface is, or the playing conditions, or the opponent's reputation, or the magnitude of the tie, or the fact that he gets zero ATP points for any impending heroics, or the injuries that come visiting, he never whines, he just plays.

Because in 12 years, and how long is that, he's lost (so says my memory) just one Cup match to a player ranked lower than him. Pause. Imagine that. Think any Indian sport. Now say it again: ONCE IN 12 YEARS. And you know what he did? He didn't say I was unlucky or it was an away match or that the conditions were foreign. No, he cried.

He felt he'd let us down. As if.

I've said this before, and now I'm saying it again, and I'll say it once more. We take this kid for granted.

It's just the way it's always been with Leander Adrian Paes.

In New Zealand, when I called him before the tie, I mentioned three matches. That is to say, that though Harsh Mankad is valiant and dogged, for India to win, as has been the recent norm, Leander would have to win both his singles and the doubles.

I looked for resentment in his tone, for tiredness and frustration, I found none. I looked for resignation, as in 'If we lose what's the big deal, who cares'. I found none. Three matches, so be it, he said. If that's what it took he was ready.

Some men shrink from a challenge. He goes looking for one.

He doesn't like the cold, never has. When we played golf during the Australian Open, on a summer's day for God's sake, he wore two sweaters. In New Zealand, he arrived on court wearing three layers on top, and a pair of athletic tights, the full length-skin-hugging outfits runners wear.

In the fourth match, which he had to win, he won the first two sets, then lost the second two. "Usually", he said, speaking from a phone in Sydney airport on the way home, "I look across the net and think no problem, I'm younger than these guys, the advantage is with me." But, and he laughs, "That's when I remember I'm 28 now, I'm the older guy.

He won the fifth set and the tie. Of course, he did.

Almost exactly a year ago, in Japan, then 27, the crucial Cup match went into the fifth hour, and he was down 1-3 in the fifth set to Takao Suzuki, who had ended the year ranked higher than him and was playing in front of a home crowd.

Leander won then, too. Of course he did.

It's too easy to belittle everyone else, and talk about incidents like being bowled out for 81 in the West Indies, and all the mediocrity that accompanies us during Asian and Olympic Games, just to make his feats look even better.

It's really not required. The fact is, and it stands on its own, he's different. He never, ever, quits.

Let's be honest, we take this kid for granted.

Whose fault is it? His, of course.

Maybe if he was a little petulant we'd pay him more attention. Maybe if he loudly demanded a bigger pay cheque, whined that he deserved more sponsors, argued for a bigger hotel suite, returned his Padma Shri. But he, flawed like the rest of us, is old-fashioned. It's the way he's always been, it's the way his Dad taught him.

In my custody is a letter to Leander from his father Dr. Vece Paes on October 13, 1989, when he was at the Britannia Amritraj Academy. In it, he writes about his pride for Leander's achievements, but then adds, "but more important is that we are proud of you as Leander. Whether you win or lose. Just keep on being the friendly, happy, dedicated and sincere person that you are."

It's why he doesn't vocally advertise what's he done, how tough it is, what it's like to be in a foreign land, on an alien surface, with a never-ending burden. That would be bragging, that's not his style.

But it's for us to articulate what he does not say. That what he does is not routine, that it's not easily accomplished, that we have a history of backing off when adversity comes calling, that he's got a stomach for a fight we've waited for and rarely seen. That to win like he does takes a huge heart, and a commitment to match.

A notebook, a diary of sorts, of his, rests on my table. It is what he filled in every day at BAT, when he was 14, maybe younger, scribbled through in childish writing. One day's entry reads: Adversity is when things are not working. Give 100 per cent at all times.

Through the years we tired of that line. Every press conference he said the same thing. Soon tennis journalists called him, in respectful jest, 'Mr. 100 per cent'. But we also knew that, although a cliche, he meant every word.

He still does. He mentioned in passing last fortnight that not a single Indian journalist was present in New Zealand. I said he should have played cricket and he laughed. No TV crews were there either. Let's face it, few people tossed and turned and truly cared about that result, and after all the Indian cricket team was in Guyana. But Mr. 100 per cent, No. 173 in the ATP Champions Race, cared.

He played for himself, and he played for us, and he did his job well, and returned to Mumbai and exited the airport without fanfare, an Indian hero mostly unrecognised.

It's the way it's always been with Leander Paes.

In my lifetime as a sportswriter, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Vishy Anand are the greatest sportsmen we have ever produced. But Leander Adrian Paes is the greatest story, the most inspiring role model.

And that, at least, you can take for granted.