Leander Paes: 'You need to be an all-court player'

Paes combined with Rohan Bopanna to not only grab a record 43rd win but also guided India to the World Group Play-offs with a sensational 3-2 win over China on Saturday.

Leander Paes: "When it comes to playing for the country, I am always available."   -  R. RAGU

A 16-year-old boy, who began his Davis Cup journey in 1990 - baptised with fire - has perched himself on a pedestal from where it will require a superhuman effort to displace him.

He is 44 now, with a world record 43 doubles wins in Davis Cup but Leander Paes continues to “re-invent” his game to pull India through. He did it on Saturday again and in the process, earned a win which made him the most successful doubles player in the history of Davis Cup.

READ: Paes creates world record in India’s stunning comeback win

Serving at 5-6 in the decisive third set, he was down 0-30 - two points away from a defeat but he logged four points in a row to keep India in the hunt and eventually, in the company of Rohan Bopanna, sealed the much-needed win.

'Had to be very resilient'

It inspired the youngsters to produce reverse singles wins and in the end, India was rejoicing a memorable outing.

"What a fabulous motivation. It is great to achieve the world record. I dedicate this record to my father, my parents, my daughter Aiyana, to every single Davis Captain I had had and to every single Davis Cup doubles partner I had and this world record belongs to India," Paes told PTI.

“I am so proud of being the son of the soil and playing so long. Many many hard years of efforts, lots of ups and downs. I had to be very resilient,” he said, reflecting on his journey.

He is already the most decorated Indian player with 18 Grand Slam titles. And the prestigious Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan have fittingly come his way. However, Paes, who has pulled off some incredible victories over the years, said the record is yet to sink in.

"It is difficult to put in words after this win from 0-2 down. I had to play three matches for 16 years - two singles and one doubles. And now to go out there as one of the senior-most players of the team to motivate the boys, I take this responsibility very seriously.

"I hope with this record I can inspire lots of youngsters in whichever field they play or work in to believe that we Indians can be the world beaters and I can prove that Indians can be world champions," was all he could say.

'I'm always available'

And he is in no mood to retire. In fact, he appears even more fired up. "When it comes to playing for the country, I am always available," he said before adding, "I feel I am still able to motivate the boys and go out there, bring out the best in them in training and at the same time, get that doubles point."

"It’s such a crucial point as you saw in this tie. We were 0-2 down and it could have been anybody's game. It was a team effort. It explains itself."

Going back in time, Paes spoke about the 24-match unbeaten streak he weaved with Mahesh Bhupathi in Davis Cup.

"Winning those matches, staying undefeated is something very special. Mahesh and I always had that respect for each other for what we achieved in tennis. Whenever it has come to play for the country, we have put our differences aside and put the country first and that’s what I respect about him."

Adapting to conditions

The game of tennis is changing. It was already tough being alone on the Tour and it is becoming more and more brutal with the players taking physical fitness to insane levels. So what does Paes think of modern day tennis?

Paes cited the example of Swiss great Roger Federer, who has made several changes to his game, to not only stay relevant but dominate the sport.

"Tennis is such a universal sport that you always have to re-invent your game. The players in different parts of the world are training on different surfaces around the world. Argentines, the Latin Americans are so used to playing on clay courts.

"The Serbians and the East Europeans are used to play on indoors right through the winters. The Americans like to play on outdoor, slow hard courts. You have the Australians, and the British and us the Indians, who are so used to playing on grass courts surfaces a little bit.

"That’s why I have tremendous respect for Roger Federer, who is so willing to reinvent his game regardless of surface he plays. He plays from baseline, serves and volleys.

"He is able to mix his game up. Transition game from baseline is such a unique art. That’s what I keep trying to emulate and keep re-inventing my game to not just play with the current players but also stay ahead of the lot. You need to be an all-court player.

"Physical and mental fitness is the pre-requisite. That’s where my whole focus has been in my career."

Even the Davis Cup is changing with a new format in place, though the purists are scoffing at the changes proposed.

"Everything in life evolves. We have to evolve with it. As athletes, we have to keep re-inventing ourselves. Having the World Group in one location where all nation can come and play is a good one. To reduce the matches from five sets to three full sets with ad points is a very good thing.

"The players can travel on a Sunday to the next destination. When they are playing on Sunday, they travel to next tournament on Monday, get there on Tuesday and play on Wednesday. So travelling on Sunday is a great implementation," he said, lending support to the new two-day format in Davis Cup.

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