For Indian sport, the 1990s was a decade of cynicism. The waves of the professional era, which had engulfed large parts of the world, were just about hitting the Indians more forcefully than ever before. They undoubtedly struggled. Everything seemed too fast and everything seemed to slip by.
Sachin Tendulkar resisted, but around him it all dropped like ninepins. Viswanathan Anand showed the way to beat the Russians, but he was yet to be co-opted by the chess intelligentsia the world over. And even at the Olympics, that beacon of amateur sport for long, an Indian had not won an individual medal for over four decades.
Then there was Leander Paes, the pint-sized Indian tennis player. He was by no means as talented as the two mentioned above, but he had a heart as huge as theirs. Cricket grabbed eye-balls and Tendulkar attracted sponsors. Anand was the intellectual in the making, excelling at what was considered a sport for the nerds and the geeks.
Paes’ was neither. He went to little-known nations, whose Davis Cup histories could be written on little tissue papers. He played both the singles and the doubles which means three best-of-five-set matches in three days. He competed in one Olympics after the other, one Asian Games after the other. He sought challenges when others would have shrugged. In the process, he spoke about the love for the country’s flag. He spoke about giving 100 per cent always. Sporting clichés they were dismissed as. Some even called him “Mr. 100 per cent” in jest.
Two decades on, at 42, he still plays Davis Cup and is still the go-to man. So much so that Yuki Bhambri, ahead of the World Group playoff against the Czech Republic, said, “With Leander teaming up with Rohan (Bopanna), we are expecting to win the doubles tie.” He still wants to play at Rio 2016, which will make him the only living athlete to compete in seven Olympics. He still speaks about his love for the flag. He still says he gives 100 per cent. They are still sporting clichés. But it is more than fair to say that no Indian sportsperson would have ever uttered those words with as much intent and as much honesty as Paes. “One thing that has still not changed is the fire in his belly,” said the Indian team coach, Zeeshan Ali, Paes’ first doubles partner in 1990 when all of 16, in whose company he won that first match in 4 hours and 26 minutes against a Japanese pair. “It particularly stands out while playing for the country.”
From then till now, what has Paes achieved? Nineteen consecutive years with at least one doubles title since 1997; In 14 of the 17 seasons since 1999, he has won or been a finalist in a Grand Slam doubles, or mixed doubles, or the year-end doubles championship event; eight doubles and nine mixed doubles titles at Grand Slams; over a 125 different partners; 48 singles and 41 doubles Davis Cup wins, the combined total of 89 is best among active players and the doubles number is just one below Italian Nicola Pietrangeli, the all-time leader with 42; an Olympic bronze (1996) even before he had won a round at a Major in singles; a famous win against Pete Sampras in 1998 where he magically served seven aces to his opponent’s four.
These are numbers that are far, far away from being routine. These are not easily accomplished. When the man himself isn’t that vocal about them, it is for us to articulate them sufficiently and lend perspective. That perspective comes when one takes into account his longevity.
Time has left nobody untouched. Not Tendulkar, not Anand and not even Roger Federer. It magnifies every loss and hastens one towards the finish. The mind wants to continue doing stuff, but the body doesn’t oblige. As John McEnroe wrote in his memoir Serious, “It’s never possible to be prepared when the future takes over from the past.”
This is perhaps Paes’ biggest achievement — of having stayed competitive for over a quarter of a century. Brian Phillips, a columnist with Grantland, while trying to explain Federer’s late career bloom wrote thus: “The best athletes usually have a ‘still’ phase. First they’re fast. Then they’re slow. In between, there’s a moment when they’re ‘still’ fast — when you can see the end coming but can’t deny that, for now, they remain close to their best.”
Paes’ volleys may be more errant now — as we saw in that third set against the Czechs — but are still worth watching. His backhand slices do sail long more than ever before, but when perfectly calibrated, they seem ever so good. He hasn’t reached a men’s Grand Slam doubles final in two years now. Yet, he had it in him to bag three mixed doubles crowns in the company of Martina Hingis this year alone. “He was the fastest guy in the world at the net,” Mahesh Bhupathi told Rohit Brijnath in Mint recently. “He’s a step slower now and he’s still the fastest guy in the world at the net”.
During the recently concluded U. S. Open, Federer was asked how he has been able to manage such a long career. “A change is how you manage your experience,” he said. “Because experience can be a very good thing, but sometimes it can also be a hindrance. You’re not playing as freely, you’re playing the percentages too much. It becomes too calculated. I have to remind myself to play like a junior sometimes.”
“There have been so many things to take care of,” Paes told this correspondent late last year when asked something similar. “But the approach and the hard work have stayed the same (since he started). These hold true for any career.”
May be, the athletes in Federer and Paes are dying. They are still very good, but may be not good enough. But like the above replies indicate, their spirit is undying.