The Heroic Outsider

NIRMAL SHEKAR

ON a windy, cold February evening in a picturesque coastal resort town in a tiny island at the feet of the Korean peninsula over three years ago, Leander Paes shut himself from the world in his hotel room overlooking the sea. Angry waves were lashing against a craggy rock formation that stood like an impenetrable wall of some medieval fortress about 200 metres away from his room, but the primal beauty of nature's frenzy might have hardly made an impression on Paes that evening.

S. SUBRAMANIUM

It was not the best of days for Indian tennis at Seogwipo City in Cheju, with the visiting Davis Cup team just having lost a close tie against the gritty Koreans in near-freezing temperatures, against the backdrop of a snow-topped, spent volcano that stood like some grotesque, huge piece of Danish pastry.

While the rest of the team members did their best - like professional sportsmen learn to do - to forget all about the loss and get on with their routine, Paes stayed all alone in his room, in self-imposed solitary confinement.

"He was devastated. I have never seen him like that. He was inconsolable. He cried and he cried and he cried," Dr.Vece Paes, Leander's father, told me several weeks later. "He was going through a difficult time (in his relationship with his doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi) and the loss was such a huge blow."

It was a day when Paes had lost in five sets after holding a matchpoint on serve in the 10th game of the third set in the crucial fourth rubber. Surely, even for a hardened pro, such a defeat in tough conditions would not have been easy to accept, to get over.

But, then, for a man whose very sense of identity was dependent on winning for his country, someone who has been as pivotal to India's Davis Cup fortunes over 10 years as was Michael Jordan to the NBA championship successes of the Chicago Bulls, that gloomy February evening was a terrible nightmare.

Looking back on that dank evening several months on, during a conversation with Vece Paes, a question suddenly popped up in my mind. Has winning for the country ever meant so much to any other athlete in the entire history of sport in India? Has it ever meant as much to anyone as it does to Leander Adrian Paes?

Quite a few Indian sportsmen have won equally famous victories - some of them of even greater significance than the ones authored by Paes - both in individual events and in team sports. From Dhyan Chand down to Ramanathan Krishnan and his son Ramesh, from Milkha Singh down to P. T. Usha and from Vijay Hazare down to Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar, from Vijay Amritraj down to Prakash Padukone and Viswanathan Anand, we have seen a long line of gifted sportspersons take tremendous pride in putting their best foot forward to bring the country great honour and glory.

Not for a moment would any sane Indian ever question the patriotic zeal of these great sporting icons. Nobody in his right mind would ever say that these sportspersons gave anything less than 100 per cent each time they turned out for the country.

Yet, the question remains. Would a solitary loss in tough conditions in a remote corner of Korea have singed their souls as much as it did in Paes's case? Would the odd failure when playing for the country have shattered their hearts as devastatingly as it happens each time Paes fails to win a crucial rubber for India in the Davis Cup?

In the pantheon of Indian sport, the Gavaskars, Tendulkars, Krishnans and Anands may demand - and deserve too - more prominent places than Paes, but no man who has ever played for India can claim to have done so with greater pride and commitment and with a bigger heart than India's Davis Cup hero.

This is a fact that is underlined every single time that Paes turns himself into a virtual One Man Army on the Davis Cup stage - as, of course, the 28-year old from Kolkata did last fortnight when he won three successive rubbers, the last of them in very, very tough conditions, to carry India past New Zealand in a second round tie in the Asia-Oceania Group I competition at Wellington.

Come Davis Cup time for India and I always tend to recall Ingrid Bergman's famous words in the war-time movie classic Casablanca. The Swedish actress's words ('Play it again, Sam') are stuff of Hollywood legend.

And when it comes to Davis Cup, the chant in India is: 'Do it again, Paes.' This is as much stuff of India's sporting folklore as is Bergman's in the context of Hollywood history.

This season, Paes has won six rubbers in a row for the country, four singles and two doubles - in partnership with Bhupathi - and he has become the most successful active Davis Cup player. There is not a single player of his generation above him in terms of career wins.

Paes, who has played in 30 Cup ties since making his debut in a doubles rubber against Japan at Chandigarh in 1990 at age 16, has a phenomenal Cup record with 60 wins and 27 losses. Only two Indians have won more Cup matches - the peerless Ramanathan Krishnan (69) and Jaideep Mukherjea (62). But Paes's win loss record (60-27) would carry him past Mukherjea (62-35) and the only man who ranks above him now is the greatest the country has ever produced.

Yes, the names that you find above Paes' in the Davis Cup record books are ones such as Ramanathan Krishnan, Ilie Nastase, Thomas Koch, Adriano Panatta, Manuel Santana, Nicola Pietrangeli and a few others.

There is not a single player ahead of Paes from the modern generation that's played all its tennis in the high noon of professionalism in the sport. And this is not really an accident. For, Davis Cup, essentially, is very much a throwback to the amateur era and the fact that Paes should be the most successful modern Cup player is at once a pointer to his heart - the man is an amateur champion at heart. Money doesn't move him, emotions do.

As a product of the I-Me generation, Paes is very much an outsider. The biggest source of his motivation is not the same as it might be for the average champion of his generation. This is precisely why he seems to be able to climb on some invisible ladder to achieve an impressive altitude when playing for the country.

In the last quarter of a century, very few professional players have displayed such extraordinary commitment to playing for the country. Among the game's giants, I can only think of John McEnroe.

Arguably the most gifted tennis player of all time, McEnroe, a man of stunningly stark contradictions, was pilloried - and quite rightly too - for his boorish on-court behaviour and his running battles with linesmen and chair umpires.

But a side of the McEnroe personality - a pointer to his character as a champion - that was generally ignored when the genius from New York was at his prime had to do with his unshakeable commitment to playing for the country.

In fact, it was McEnroe's fierce passion on the Cup stage, his charismatic presence, that revived the sinking fortunes of the oldest team competition in sport at a time when other superstars such as Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg displayed a rather ambivalent attitude to playing Davis Cup. McEnroe ended his Cup career with a 59-10 record. No man has won more Cup matches while losing fewer!

To be sure, in terms of pure talent, there is as big a gap between McEnroe and Paes as the geographical distance that separates New York from Kolkata. But as champions of character who wore their hearts on their sleeves and spilt guts on the court when playing for the country, these are men of the same ilk.

From the day one first watched Paes in Davis Cup, on a March afternoon of blistering heat in Chandigarh in 1990, hardly two months after he had lost in the final of the Australian Open Junior Boys championship in Melbourne, one could be sure that the chemistry between Paes and Davis Cup was something truly special.

Playing in the doubles rubber against Japan in the company of Zeeshan Ali, the 16-year old won a majority of the big points for India in the marathon five-setter as the home team pair triumphed 18-16 in the decider.

A champion had arrived. And a new era in Indian Davis Cup history had begun.

The following year, still only 17, Paes won a critical fifth rubber to see India past South Korea at New Delhi, and into the World Group qualifying round. A heroic young champion had lived up to expectations.

Since then, match after match after match, in every one of the 27 (out of his career total of 30) Cup ties in which I have watched him play, the man never gave anything less than 100 per cent, both mentally and physically.

Time and again, one would meet him in the lobby of the team hotel or in the locker room on the third morning of Cup play. He would have played two tough matches in two days in difficult conditions and his face would reflect the strain.

The stock question would be: "How are you feeling?" And he would always say, "For Davis Cup, I am always ready."

You would know that the man was not feeling on top of the world. You would know too that he was less than 100 per cent physically and mentally. But, an hour or two later, you would sit and watch him - in sheer disbelief - run like Carl Lewis, throw himself at balls like a soccer goalkeeper and dig deeper and deeper to deliver the goods for the country.

This transformation of a tired player - hardly a world beater on the ATP Tour or in the Grand Slams in singles - into an all-conquering giant was a process that never ceased to amaze you, no matter whether you were witnessing it for the first time, or, as in my case, for the 25th or 26th time!

How many times has one witnessed the David versus Goliath act, from Frejus in July 1993 - when he beat Henri Leconte and Arnaud Boetsch on clay - to Jaipur in September 1994, when Paes outplayed Wayne Ferreira, one of the greatest grass court players of his generation, on a fast grass court, and New Delhi in September 1995 when he came back from two sets down to beat Goran Ivanisevic, also on grass!

For a man with his track record, the five-set victory over New Zealand's Mark Nielsen last fortnight in Wellington may not be something that would call for champagne celebration. But, the point is, the victory underlined the fact that in his 13th year in Davis Cup play, the heroic performer still retains the fire within.

It is a fire that will never be extinguished so long as Leander Adrian Paes happens to stand on a tennis court with the Indian team listening to the country's National Anthem on the first morning of a Davis Cup tie.