Davis Cup: Can Leander Paes weave his magic?

The magician on court, Leander Paes has matched some of the best players such as Goran Ivanisevic, Jim Courier, Marcelo Rios and Henri Leconte, at home and abroad, on grass and clay.

Leander Paes and Saketh Myneni during a practice session on Wednesday   -  PTI

Indian tennis has witnessed many formidable teams over the years, in Davis Cup, but the Spaniards take the cake for sheer high quality, with three players in the top-20, in Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez. The magician on court, Leander Paes has matched some of the best players such as Goran Ivanisevic, Jim Courier, Marcelo Rios and Henri Leconte, at home and abroad, on grass and clay. When he won the Olympic bronze in Atlanta on the hard courts in singles in 1996, Paes had not entered the top-100 of the world.

What is it that Paes, soldiering on at 43, could do, when the adrenalin flowed copious in his veins, which the current crop of players with better serve and strokes, like Saketh Myneni, Ramkumar Ramanathan or the colt Sumit Nagal, cannot. “These boys will have to mature. Even physically, they have to get strong. They have the talent. They may have better strokes, but Leander had better hands, he was a natural athlete and a great fighter. He had determination and could lift his game according to the level of the opponents,” said Jaideep Mukerjea, the former captain of the Indian team, who was also the coach when Paes won the Olympic medal in 1996.

Paes had the heart and legs of a champion, with the magical hands to boot, but his erstwhile partner Mahesh Bhupathi was not too pleased when asked how the 18-time Grand Slam champion who has competed in a record seven Olympics could do so well with his limited game. “First of all it is wrong to say that Leander had a limited game. When people played serve and volley, Leander would return and come to the net for volley.

"Just because someone does not hit big groundstrokes, you can’t say that the game is limited. It is like saying, Richard Krajicek’s game is limited, because he hit a single handed backhand,” said Mahesh, who had watched Paes from close quarters for many years, and had won the Grand Slams and many Davis Cup ties with him.

Inspired by the deeds of his partner, Mahesh had, in fact, played epic singles matches in helping India beat Chile that had world No.1 Marcelo Rios and the Dutch team, which was so strong, that it had rested Richard Krajicek, the future Wimbledon champion. “We just cannot compare Leander with these boys. I think our boys should try to keep the points short and take their chances against Spain. They have to be aggressive and can’t afford to allow their game to dip even for five minutes,” said Mahesh, who has been supporting and guiding the best player emerging from the junior ranks, Sumit Nagal, by giving him a training base in Germany.

“Saketh has done four years school in the US and has a big game. He is improving on the Tour. Both Sumit and Ramkumar are still young and doing the right things,” said Mahesh, not in any hurry to see any magic from them.

The seasoned Jaideep Mukerjea stressed the similar point as Mahesh did, by recalling his conversation with the great Ramanathan Krishnan, who had made Wimbledon semifinals twice and lost to the eventual champions.

“Krish used to say the difference between the top-10 players and the other top players was that the best would get their shots right 100 times out of 100. They rarely missed,” remarked Mukerjea. The Spaniards did look intimidating as they took turns to play points after their routine drills, on a day when rain had hyped the humidity level. But the Indian team, which slogged in bright sunshine for the better part of the day, preparing for the evening matches, will get its chances to make an impact and cause a dent, to reputation.

The question will be whether the World Group aspirants will lift their game against world class opposition, even though they may not be used to be competing against such high quality players on a regular basis in the professional circuit.