If the subject's Leander Paes, Anwar Ali backtracks in time with the ease of a raconteur. It's been over two decades since Anwar began schooling eight-year-old Paes about court craft, serve, volley and the rest of it but time, it seems, has distilled memory in a way that makes for easy recollection.
From Paes's mates at training, the early eagerness for doubles, the endless energy and the first glimpse of that never-say-die spirit, Anwar's anecdotes are an almost chronological reconstruction of India's biggest tennis star's early days. "Leander was eight when his father Vece asked my brother Akhtar Ali (ex-India coach) to get him started," Anwar said.
"Dada (Akhtar) told Vece that since I had just returned from a coaching stint at Harry Hopman's centre (in Florida), I should be his first coach."
So it began, at the Outram Club, thrice weekly three-hour sessions with training shifting to the South Club nearby on weekends. "He would be ridden to trainings on a bicycle by a man servant from his Beckbagan house (in south Kolkata). On weekends, Leander would ride pillion on Vece's scooter."
The man who's trademarked the chip-and-charge game though started on clay. "He was a natural athlete whose legs would take him to the net almost instinctively," was how Anwar explained why Paes never became a natural baseliner.
Till he was 14, Paes trained with Anwar. Collar turned up, he was more style-conscious than most, but on court, Paes was more serious and confident that his peers.
The zest for outdoor sport too was evident early. "After a round of tennis, he would play football and return to play some more tennis. After singles, he would beg to be allowed to play doubles. His volley, the angles and ball control all come from team play.”
Even before he was 12, Anwar saw that Paes didn't know how to give up. "In the U-12 national championship semi-final against Nitin Kirtane, Leander banged into a roller and hurt his knee badly. A doctor ruled him out but he simply said 'sir, I want to play. I know I'll win this.' I asked him 'but son, isn't it hurting' and he said it didn't matter. I strapped his knee and he played and won."
Anwar's most abiding memories of his most famous pupil have a mentoring angle to them. Being introduced to Tom Gullickson, then Pete Sampras's coach, by Paes is one, seeing Paes and Jared Palmer play each other at Wimbledon is another. These recollections spur him into continuing the search for another one like Leander Adrian Paes.