The will of the born survivor

ROHIT BRIJNATH

SOME sporting moments lie in the memory, that neither time nor nicotine or experience can ever wash away.

And so it was 12 years ago on a summer Melbourne morning, as my taxi drew up for the journey to the airport and then home to India, he leant dishevelled against the door, his young face grim.

The Australian Open had ended the previous evening, and he didn't have anywhere to stay, so I'd taken him to a friend's place. Now I said to him, 'Hey, smile, you have much to be proud of.'

"I'll never forget what Leander Paes, 16, a boy nothing more, replied that morning. "No, I can't (smile), I should have won. I won't make that mistake again."

It was 1990, the year a young man came to the Australian Open, alone, unknown, untested, and forever left his anonymity at the gates.

Twelve years ago Leander Adrian Paes, no goatee as he has now, no Olympic medal, no world No.1 doubles ranking, no Davis Cup heroics in his resume, walked into Melbourne Park (then Flinders Park) a nobody and exited with junior Australian Open runner-up medal.

He had no coach, no trainer, no guiding and coddling parent with him; he was unseeded and raw, yet so deep ran his ambition, so complete his self-belief in one so young, that instead of being elated by his achievement he preferred to see it as a failure. His expectations of himself were higher than those eventually dumped on him.

It was that one statement, that one morning, that told me this was unusual competitor.

Twelve years have passed, and it is 2002, and it is the Sunday before the Australian Open begins, and we are again together at Melbourne. Facing off on the golf course, and later (he won) I remind him of what he said in 1990. "I have never disliked losing," he replies with emphasis, "I absolutely hate it."

I can testify to this; when I partnered him once during a game of carrom, against his sisters for God's sake, and we lost, he was furious. But that said, let it be noted that he is no sore loser, no sulking schoolboy after defeat, quick to shake a man's hand and wish him well when his best was not good enough.

Leander Adrian Paes is not over and done with, he is but 28, but in tennis terms his goatee is greyed, and more of his triumphs lie behind him than in front. Athletes are loath to see their own finishing lines, yet he knows the peak has passed.

It is too early possibly to measure completely his legacy, but I ask him about it anyway, what he feels he is most proud of, what contribution he believes he has made to Indian sport.

His answer is predictably interesting: first, he says, that he proved Indians could be athletes; secondly, that we were mentally strong enough to take on the world. Both are unquestionably, powerful legacies and both equally important.

We are not an athletic nation, more a clever one, most of our champions born of guile and touch and subtlety and wrist and intellect and craft (note: the Krishnan family, Prakash Padukone, V. Anand, Michael Ferreira, Geet Sethi, cricket players, hockey players in the old days).

But Leander told us something different. He bounded across the court with the quicksilver speed of a hunted thief, dove for volleys, climbed to the clouds for overheads, demonstrating unequivocally that there was nothing in the Indian gene that precluded us from being athletes. It could be done, but of course it did not come easy.

As he says, with disarming honesty, "I was hardly the most talented of players; there were players far more talented than I was. But I made up for it in hard work."

When the lights went out at the Britannia Amritraj Centre where he trained, he would practice his moves in front of a mirror by candlelight. When his trainer in America, Pat Etcheberry, strapped a harness around him, held it tightly, and made him run in loose sand, he vomited because of exertion. "But I washed my mouth out and started again," he says.

He is equally proud of his competitiveness, and this too is an interesting tale.

If truth be told, from whichever angle you look at it, Leander Paes should have never won an Olympic medal, beaten Goran Ivanisevic or Arnaud Boetch or God knows how many high-ranked others at the Davis Cup, or even won one singles ATP tournaments. His forehand was erratic (linepersons were advised to wear crash helmets), his backhand nonexistent, his serve diminished by his limited height, his balance on shots awry.

But he won through a sheer doggedness, a refusal to quit, an ability to remain unruffled by the moment, a belief that if I played my game, if I played my best I could take on any man, with whatever reputation, of whatever colour. "If I had talent," he says "it lay in my belief."

For long people wondered why a man so successful in the Davis Cup was so uninspired on the tour. We liked to think he played to potential in the Davis Cup, but was below par elsewhere. Quite the contrary.

In a startling admission (startling only because sportspersons are reluctant by reasons of ego to admit to frailty) he says: I was an average player, yes "I was, but in Davis Cup I played two notches above myself."

It is important that we draw deeply from Leander's example and experience, for when it comes to combat, as a sporting nation we tend to step back not forward. As a Indian hockey player once told me years ago: "When we stand next to the German team, these 6ft blond guys in their new silk kit, we are already a goal down."

Leander turned that intimidation on its head, and with his primeval cries and clenched fists gave us a audible, tangible lesson in courage. It was hard not to admire or not be involved, and in a sense, when he bellowed his determination, he was articulating the rage of a silent nation. Perhaps his greatest compliment arrived from Harsha Bhogle, who wrote once that when India was travelling to England for the 1999 cricket World Cup, "they should take Leander along as 12th man. What he lacked cricket-wise, he would have contributed through sheer heart."

Tragically, as his body refuses to answer his mind as quickly as he'd like, and his singles game frays at the edges (though he and Mahesh still have miles to go and titles to win before they sleep), a successor to him is yet to be found.

He does not say it, but nothing would give him greater pleasure than to see a young man, also 16, with a fury in his stomach, bounding across the court, rising to the clouds for a overhead, always unafraid.

Only then, you sense, will Leander Adrian Paes be truly satisfied. And believe me he has left behind a worthwhile legacy.

And perhaps, unlike that day 12 years ago, he will smile too.