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HindustanTimes Sat,19 Apr 2014

Tennis

It pays to have Leander Paes
Sukhwant Basra, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, January 30, 2013
First Published: 00:19 IST(30/1/2013)
Last Updated: 01:43 IST(30/1/2013)

It has not been a comfortable few days for VM Ranjeet and Vijayant Malik in the Indian Davis Cup team. Things have been kind of awkward.

At 511 and 537 on the rankings list, the two are behind seven Indian players who have far more impressive credentials to represent the nation.

With 11 players having rebelled against the All India Tennis Association's manner of functioning, India has been forced to field a scratch team in the forthcoming tie against South Korea.

For Ranjeet and Malik, our probable singles players, things just can't have been easy in the head.

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Sombre mood
Till Tuesday, the mood at the tennis stadium here was sombre and not given to the fun and games usually associated with the Davis Cup squad. The laughs had been less forthcoming, the rancour muted.

Purav Raja joined the squad on Monday with a sheepish grin; after all he is good friends with Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna (two of the main rebels).

Family pressure was too much for him to shrug off and there was, of course, the dream of playing for the country.

Living legend
They all appeared committed and zealous enough, but the controversial buildup to this tie seemed to have left a pall that the squad just couldn't shake off.

But that was until Leander Paes walked on to court for the afternoon session on Tuesday. As far as Davis Cup goes, Paes is a legend.

The fourth all-time greatest player in the history of the competition and the leading active player in the world, in respect of wins in both singles and doubles, Paes can certainly tread a Davis Cup court like he owns it. He's earned that.

There is a tendency towards hyperbole when trying to weave a story, but this correspondent does not exaggerate when stating that the atmosphere in the Indian camp underwent a decided shift from hazy to bright sunshine in a matter of minutes.

With Paes sharing the same bench, just about any team in the world would feel that it belongs.

Heck, the kids seemed to walk taller once he showed up. And that self-confidence is just what the squad needs to prevail against the higher-ranked Korean players.

Knowing the tricks
Davis Cup has been Paes' hunting ground for far too long. The wily veteran knows all the tricks there are and if anyone can boost the self-confidence of our lot, it has to be Paes.

Given that he still keeps popping up to win doubles Grand Slams every now and then, it is easy to forget that as far as Davis Cup goes he has been around since 1990.

On Tuesday, Paes played some doubles in the company of Raja against the two obviously over-awed reserve players, Ashwin Vijayragavan and Arjun Kadhe.

He went through the moves but hardly uncorked even one-fourth of his repertoire. It was more of an exercise at making Raja comfortable.

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Over the years, Paes has proved that he has the knack of transforming even mediocre partners into something far more when paired with him.

It is a given that he is expected to pull off the crucial doubles match on Saturday but in this tie, the veteran's role is far bigger than just winning one match.

When Paes addresses them, the rest of the players listen in awed silence. When he jokes, they laugh; he glares, they look away. Paes is the leader of this lot and, whether he wants it or not, he has been saddled with the mantle of mentoring them for this tie.

The larger ask for him is to pull this team out of the palpable self-doubt and make it soar beyond the clutch of mere rankings. India can rest assured that if there is any man who can raise his and his team's game in Davis Cup, it is Leander Paes.

Whether he manages to do that or not is the big question looming as the tie weekend approaches.


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