Sportstar archives: Leander proves more potent than Ginseng

Praises were sung, some in jest and some in real earnest, of the 17-year-old and Leander Paes took them all with just the appropriate smile.

Chang Eui-Jong of South Korea makes a forehand return against Leander Paes of India in the Davis Cup Asia Oceanic Zone second round tie in Delhi.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Everyone in that small hotel room in New Delhi that night seemed caught up in a state of soothing intoxication. And the bottle of champagne sent up by the manager of the Taj Mahal hotel had nothing to do with it. Success, after all, is the greatest of intoxicants and the handful of people crammed into the room were celebrating India’s triumph in the Davis Cup tie against South Korea last fortnight.

The team’s non-playing captain, Naresh Kumar, ever the suave party man, had all of us busting our guts in laughter with his peerless party jokes while a few others made an honest but doomed attempt in matching him. Soon, the attention turned to the hero of the hour, the one who had made possible all the revelry of the night, earlier in the afternoon at the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association stadium.

Praises were sung, some in jest and some in real earnest, of the 17-year-old and Leander Paes took them all with just the appropriate smile, neither allowing himself to be carried away by the mood of the moment nor remaining inappropriately aloof. If the boy can handle a tennis racquet better than any other teenager in this country, then he can certainly handle the celebrity status.

“It was a good match to win," said someone. “It will do so much to his confidence.” No question there.

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But, rather more importantly, it was a good match to get to play. After all, Ramesh Krishnan had come within five points of closing out the tie with the first reverse singles. Had he done that, Leander would have been playing in front of half-empty stands, going through a Davis Cup act that often looks like the predictable, boring scenes that follow a rousing climax in a badly edited feature film.

“That was what I was telling Leander,” said Vece Paes, the young man’s father, that night. “I told him how lucky he was. He could well have been playing a fifth match that meant nothing, had Ramesh won,” he said.

Then again, being lucky enough to get to play a vital match for the country in front of a national television audience is one thing. Being able to take advantage of the turn of fortune to walk into the warm embrace of surpassing history is quite another.

Indeed, it may well be that time and again events in the last 12 months have proved that Leander Paes was not merely “called,” but more significantly, was “chosen.” He was the Chosen One.

To be sure, chosen not by ordinary mortals but by His Inscrutable Highness, Mr Destiny.

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No joyride

Yet, even for the chosen ones it is not really a joyride out there in the world of tennis. And the last responsibility that any level-headed 17-year-old would want to accept is to play a must-win fifth rubber in a Davis Cup tie delicately balanced at 2-2 and with the eyes of the whole nation on him the expectations of a whole country riding on his young shoulders.

As such, what Leander Paes did the other Sunday in Delhi, in the Asia-Oceania Group I tie against South Korea was to prove that he deserved to be the Chosen One. That destiny, whose ways might well be incomprehensible to us for the most part, more often than not chooses the right ones.

Of course, it was not as if that Leander was playing Boris Becker on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. He was merely playing a Korean left-hander named Ji Seung-ho who was playing in only his first Davis Cup tie. But it takes enormous strength of character to perform as well as Leander did in a critical fifth match in Davis Cup, whatever the merits of the opposition, whatever the conditions that may have favoured the home team.

What Leander Paes did the other Sunday in Delhi, in the Asia-Oceania Group I tie against South Korea was to prove that he deserved to be the Chosen One.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

In the event, the triumph – one that enabled India to reach the World Group playoff round for the first time in three years – can be seen as a significant step forward in Leander’s own career. It was yet another big test and he came through with his head high and national pride intact.

Those who knew Leander well enough also knew that the youngster was not going to be overawed by the occasion. From the time he began to hold our attention as a junior on the international stage, it has been clear that he was a rare champion. The bigger the stage, the better he performed. The greater the adversity, the greater the rush of adrenaline in him.

When you watch Leander play a big match on a big stage, William Blake’s immortal words – Energy is eternal delight – come to mind. The boundless, raw energy that the teenager exudes on court is at once delightful and contagious. It casts a mesmeric spell on the audience and even the most detached and impassionate of observers are drawn into the beckoning, lapping waves of the currents.

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Expectations

On that blazing afternoon at the DLTA stadium, the atmosphere was electric. The stadium was packed, mostly with groups of youngsters with strong vocal chords and faces painted with the colours of the Indian flag. “Go, Leander go.” The chants cut through the whoosh of the gusts of hot air as the young man went out on court with Ji Seung-ho.

And Leander did not let down his supporters. He stayed ahead of the Korean left hander right through and overwhelmed him once he wrapped the first set tiebreak. A breathtaking forehand down-the-line pass which found Leander a mini-break was the highlight of the tiebreak which broke the Korean’s will for good.

Leander never lost serve in the match, but Seung-ho had a chance to reverse the trend early in the second set when he had three break points in the second game. But he couldn’t convert any of those points and once the junior Wimbledon champion wriggled out of that spot he simply raced to the finish for a 7-6 (7-5), 6-3. 6-2 victory.

“It was the fifth match and the pressure was on him. Full credit to him. He is a courageous, big-hearted player,” said Naresh Kumar.

It was remarkable how soon and how well Leander recovered from the effects – both physical and psychological – of the first day’s singles. Against the Korean No. 1 player, Chang Eui-Jong, Leander had looked pedestrian, frustrated and totally ill at ease.

On a day when the 6ft 1in Chang served powerfully and consistently, Leander struggled to get his returns in. The fact that Leander was not returning well made things easy for the Korean who surprised himself, and a whole lot of others, by how well he adapted to the grass court.

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Chang volleyed superbly and hit some superb passes, especially off the backhand. He never allowed Leander to settle into a comfortable groove in the match and the Indian teenager often looks ordinary and helpless when he is not allowed to impose his personality on the proceedings.

Given all this, it was almost incredible how Leander slowly picked himself up over the next two days, after Chang beat him 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 on the first day. The improvement was evident even in the doubles where Leander played the right court and Ramesh the left.

At Jaipur, against the Indonesians, Ramesh had played the right court, but the change made a big difference here. “I had always believed that the more experienced and more consistent player should be on the left court. That is where most of the big points are played. But at Jaipur, I was not sure if Leander would be able to adjust to the change. So I had to wait,” said Naresh Kumar.

Flair

The Indians played great tennis in the doubles match. Their understanding was near-perfect and all the doubts about Leander's fitness – he had suffered from a bout of cramps late in his match against Chang on the opening day – seemed unfounded as the young man rose to the occasion in great style.

Ramesh played like the experienced pro he is. He served deep and intelligently, returned brilliantly for the most part and allowed Leander to do much of the work at the net, which the young man carried out in explosive fashion. For all that, it was as close a straight-sets verdict as any.

The 7-6, 6-4, 7-5 triumph came in two hours and 35 minutes for the Indians and it produced tremendous excitement and seat-edge thrills. Chang Eui-Jong and Ji Seung-ho had beaten one of the top doubles pairs in the game, the Canadians Glenn Michibita and Grant Connell, in Seoul recently, and they started out the favourites in the key rubber.

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But Seung-ho turned out to be the weak link and the Indians exploited this very well for a stunning victory that, in hindsight, decided the tie itself.

Nobody who knows his tennis can dispute the fact that Leander has come some way since playing his first live singles for India against Thailand at Bangkok last February. Last month, he beat the accomplished Australian Wally Masur in a tournament in Singapore and he is well on his way to becoming a full-fledged circuit pro.

Still, there are areas where the young man needs to improve in the near future. The backhand is far from being a weapon and he has considerable work to do on returns of serve. His shot selection is better than it was at the start of the year but, as Ramesh pointed out, “He can do better there.”

Nothing better could have happened to Leander than Ramesh’s return to the side. Practising with such a mature pro, and one who is willing to guide the younger man, is a big boon and it has clearly made a difference to Leander’s game.

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Crucial

By the time you read this, Leander would have already left for the United States for another short stint with the former pro Gene Mayer after spending a week with Ramesh in Delhi following the tie. The work Mayer will put in should help Leander prepare for the crucial summer months in England where he will be hoping to pick up as many points as possible towards his goal of making the top 250 or 200 by the end of the year.

Ramesh himself is back in the US for a training stint before leaving for England for the summer tournaments. Having to play three matches in three days was a bit of a strain for the man who will be 30 this June, but Ramesh was not complaining really.

He merely put things in perspective when he said that in most countries, the team management would politely say goodbye to a player when he reached age 30. But, then, it is so hard to come by genuine talent in India that it seems impossible that we can find a substitute for this remarkably modest man who has been on the Indian Cup team since 1977.

However, it’s about time we faced realities and Ramesh is not going to go on forever. The demands in Davis Cup are extraordinary on the senior pro and there is a limit to the workload that an over-30 pro can reasonably be hoped to take.

In this tie, Ramesh did what he had to do rather well. He is not playing at the peak of his powers now and in the last two years he seems to have lost that edge that carried him to the heights of a Wimbledon quarterfinal, a Davis Cup final and two US Open quarterfinals in the 1980s. Yet, his class and experience are enough to counter anything that an Asian opposition can throw against him.

About the only time that Ramesh faltered in the tie was against Chang on the third morning when, quite often, he looked jaded and found himself incapable of converting all those break points in the eighth game of the fifth set. Chang was down 0-40 and after coming out of that corner, the Korean staved off two more break points before holding serve and stepping on the pedal for the sprint to the finish.

While Ramesh was never the kind of player who was right on top at the net following his serve, these days the man with the masterly touch is a half-step slower and frequently finds himself having to volley defensively from the top of the service box rather than offensively a little ahead.

Using his backhand to great advantage and raising his service power and accuracy when he needed to, Chang authored a memorable 4-6, 6-4, 1-6, 6- 3, 6-4 victory in a match of dramatic swings. Actually, with greater help from Seung-ho, the brilliant Chang could well have decided the tie in his team’s favour.

But the only thing Seung-ho did right in the tie was to start well in his first singles against Ramesh. He won the first set, serving wide to Ramesh’s backhand and hustling a bit at the net. But Ramesh soon changed gears and the different in class was obvious as the Indian won 4-6, 6-2, 6-0, 6-3.

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Upcurve

If the tie was closer than most of us may have imagined before the start, then it went to prove how much the other Asian nations have improved in the recent years. Both Ramesh and his father, Ramanathan Krishnan, as well as Naresh Kumar, pointed out countries like Korea, the Philippines and China have made vast strides in the game.

Through the rest of the ’90s decade, it is going to take two genuine world-class players for India to stay ahead of rest in Asia, leave alone survive for a meaningful phase in the World Group competition, should we get there.

This means we have to tackle two or three questions immediately. First, we have to ask ourselves, “Who after Ramesh?” right now. Not that Ramesh is going to stop playing Davis Cup this year or even the next year. But it is going to take us two or three years to find someone competent enough to take the second singles spot once Leander moves to the top slot after Ramesh’s exit.

And then, we have to groom a young doubles team. This is rather more urgent than finding a competent singles player.

In the heady ’80s, when an evergreen Vijay Amritraj and a masterly Ramesh Krishnan authored some of the most absorbing chapters in Indian Davis Cup history, it never occurred to us that one day we’d be celebrating a victory over South Korea as if we had just won the Davis Cup itself!

But time often rearranges priorities and points of view and right now we are in a phase of transition. Thankfully, the transition has been smooth enough this year, thanks to the return of Ramesh and the volcanic energy of the teenaged Leander Paes.

(This article was first published in Sportstar on May 18, 1991)

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