I have known Lee since he was five or six-years-old. I used to order him around. I suppose I still can but it’s not the same Leander Paes anymore, is it? He was always this guy who could never hit more than two balls over the net. He still struggles to do that but let’s just say he is much better than what he was then.
He came into the Davis Cup squad in 1990 as a 16-year-old reserve (against Japan). But when we got up 2-0 on the first day we decided to try him out in doubles. It was a risk but then what he and I enacted made it one of my most memorable matches ever.
Even Lee would probably agree and rank it in his top-10 of best matches ever. 18-16 in the fifth, it was a dream debut for him in front of the home crowd. It was right here in Chandigarh too.
The kind of energy the guy got on to the court was something we don’t see nowadays. You have the best players in the world like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and they have these moments when they are able to inspire the crowd, get it going. Lee has been able to do it ever since he first stepped on the court. You know, he had this twinkle in his eye and all those nautankis (antics) and chalakis (smarts) he used to do at that point of time. At the most crucial of points he had the audacity of trying the most absurd shots. Funnily enough, he usually got away with them. That’s been the most amazing thing. He has played some of the top players in the world and done things nobody expected him to do. It’s especially rich for a guy who couldn’t keep two balls in the court!
If you look at his groundstrokes and compare them to the top professionals in the world, they aren’t up there with the best. Like Stefan Edberg may have had a great forehand but if you compared him with the best, he had a weak forehand, right? The same goes for Leander. But what he lacked at the baseline he more than compensated at the net. He more than compensated for it with the anticipation he had… the hand-eye coordination… the quickness of his feet and those lightening hands…
He is one of those guys like Andre Agassi who are able to pick up the ball that split second quicker than everybody else. That is what has carried him over the years. As you get older your legs start to get slower. That’s just natural but the fact is that the guy is still winning Grand Slams and we can see that he still reacts to the ball the same way that he did. Ok, maybe he is a step slower but you can see the movement that he makes even before the ball has crossed the net. Now, that’s something no coach in the world can teach you. It’s a God-given talent, a God-given thing which he has utilised to the max.
I think it’s a miracle in some way to still find him playing at this level. It’s an amazing story. It’s something you just don’t expect. That’s why Leander is a legend.
(Present Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali was Paes’ first partner in Davis Cup and the man that the legend won his first ATP point with)