He is Indian tennis' answer to Sachin Tendulkar, both in terms of longevity and commitment to the sport besides a consistent level of performance. The legendary Ramanathan Krishnan said as much in his moving speech at a felicitation in Chennai to commemorate Leander Paes' 21 years in Davis Cup.
Krishnan, himself a former Davis Cup captain with 43 victories, said: "Leander, (Viswanathan) Anand and Sachin (Tendulkar) emerged in the 1990s and became great sportspersons because of their feats. They broadbased sport in India as more youngsters wanted to emulate them."
The function, held on Saturday night, was attended by the Who's Who of Indian tennis and presided over by All India Tennis Association president Yashwant Sinha. It was marked by nostalgia and emotion as all the speakers touched upon the various facets of Leander, who made his Davis Cup debut in 1990 against Japan at Chandigarh.
The special invitees also included former Davis Cup stars Naresh Kumar, Jaideep Mukherjea and Shiv Prakash Misra, the current captain, besides Leander’s present team-mates Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna.
In a special message, International Tennis Federation (ITF) president Rici Bitti said: "There are so many positive things to say about your career but, to me, the most important is that you are a great ambassador of tennis.
"I can still remember very clearly your junior career and you certainly have more than fulfilled the promise that you showed by winning the Wimbledon and US Open junior titles."
Leander's longtime doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi, said: “No one knows Leander better than me and we have shared a room together. He used to sleep on the cot and I used to sleep on the floor. It was great for me to play with a legend. It is outstanding for a player to consistently perform for 21 years."
Former Davis Cup captain Naresh Kumar lauded both Paes and his doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi who together won three Grand Slam titles to project India as a potent force in tennis.
"Leander and Mahesh taught us attitude that made fresh horizons. Leander had a swagger - a swagger of a puttani (a weirdo) -- of bubbling energy. His greatest strength was his unpredictability. Instead of leading the Davis Cup team, I learnt from the boys," Naresh Kumar said with a touch of humour.
Leander's father, Vece, the 1972 Olympic hockey bronze medallist, recalled the early days, especially the difficult times when he criss-crossed the country seeking sponsorship to support his son’s tennis career as also his first love, football.
Ramesh Krishnan, a former Davis Cupper and captain, said: "Leander is a dream player for any Davis Cup captain. He loved challenges and when I captained the team, he amazingly played the singles and the doubles."
The recalls and praise left Leander misty-eyed and his voice choked with emotion when he acknowledged the contributions of various people who shaped his career and personality.
"I live in a fabulous country with so much traditions and excellence. There is no greater joy than playing for the flag and the colours of your country.
"I am sure I cannot play for the next 20 years, but as long as my legs will carry, I will do my best for my country. I am proud to be an Indian Davis Cupper and thank all those who have been with me through this difficult journey," he said and was greeted with a standing ovation.