There is nothing crystal clear when it comes to India’s most accomplished Davis Cup player.
Does this man really play unconditionally for the flag or is he an elaborate con who takes a whole nation for a ride?
For instance, while Leander Paes is inseparable from the memory of the Tri-colour aloft on a tennis court, he missed the last Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in July so that he could make some money playing club tennis in the US. He also missed the last Asian Games as he looked to plug a hole in his CV that says no season-ending championship. His defence: he wants to give the younger lot a chance to grow into the onerous responsibility of representing the nation.
Whether he built a team or whether he was 'self-centred' is another debate that has sprung up in the wake of comments by Rohan Bopanna on how the atmosphere in the team wasn’t too cosy when he was the main man. Others would of course say that while Bopanna is a straight shooter, he too has been under the influence of Paes’ arch baiter Mahesh Bhupathi.
And of course, when it comes to Paes there is also the eternal conflict between what he says one year and recants the next. Last year he dissed his so-called 'enemy' Bhupathi’s tennis league. This year he is playing for it. There is always the perplexing conundrum of just how he and Bhupathi — who are supposed to hate each other — seem to bury their ever-red hatchet when it comes to mutually beneficial business.
As a veteran scribe once put it, where there is Paes, there is drama. From crying when the flag goes up to that incredibly dazzling quickest draw on the net, from uttering breathtaking insights into the nuances of the game to inane remarks about whether his London Olympics doubles partner even had grass court shoes, Paes is just not about the regular, the acceptable. He is not that kid who’ll merge into the larger span of the playground. No. Instead, he will stake his claim to a corner of it and then create enough of a ruckus that you can’t afford to ignore him. Like he did first with Davis Cup singles. Then he has done it again in men’s doubles. Now mixing it up in Mixed is his thing.
He refuses to go
Paes stays unpredictable, even for those who know him well. Fifteen years ago your correspondent was waiting for the player to show up at a tennis court. But the man is like a cat. Make a move towards him and he scoffs, fluffs up his hackles in disdain and saunters off — almost rude. You have to wait for him to come to you on his own time. As wicked as fate is, 15 years later I am still waiting for Paes to come around. The thing is he refuses to go away. He is the fourth greatest player ever in the history of Davis Cup. No other Indian has and is likely to ever come close to his 89-32 win-loss record. For a tennis writer, it is suicidal to ignore Paes. For Indian chances in the Davis Cup the same, sadly, still stays true.
The game of tennis is like chess, but at a physically demanding apex. It stays a mental sport where dealing with pressure is the paramount requirement for winning. Over the years, I have come to know Paes rather well. Many a time in his hotel room, we have chatted as I went through the mini bar and he sipped at his nimbu paani or that one 'vice' he has — cola with a lemon slice. He has opened up to me and unravelled the intricacies of the game to a simple formula of mind control. I have been threatened with a lynching if I ever reveal his little tricks in print. But tricks aside, the real magic lies in this man’s ability to go into a different world when out on court. "Hi, this is Leander Paes. I can’t take your call right now as I have changed planets." That isn’t his phone message when playing but it really should be.
After all, how else can you explain a fellow going through the excruciating crush of a custody battle for a child whom he loves like crazy, but still being able to win Grand Slams. These court cases are nasty things. Even the most brutal of fiction writers couldn’t come up with the imagined slights that find their way into the pleas prepared by lawyers.
Paes has been in mental turmoil for the one-and-half years that this legal dogfight has gone on. Men, especially the emotional kind, and we all know just how emotional this one is given that he cries at the prop of a flag, are supposed to cave in. Instead, Paes won three Grand Slams this year.
Then, in the middle of a custody battle going his way, he has to tear himself away and come to represent his country. All over again after being 25 years on the job just because, like he says, no one else has stepped up to his level. He believes that when it comes to the upper echelons of the inter-nation competition India still need him. There is no disputing that.
Keep calm and…
Right now the High Court has ruled in his favour as far as getting access to his child is concerned. That’s playing on his mind. But Paes tears that bit closest to his heart away and comes to do his job.
We expect our champions to be perfect. We put them on a pedestal and believe them to be larger than God. Paes, through his actions, shows that he is far from perfect off the court. Just that when he is in that rectangle, there is nobody else in this country; actually make that the world, who owns Davis Cup matches the way he does. If one man can move a mountain, this one can move a nation.
That then is the enigma of Leander Adrian Paes. The one thing we all know for sure is that when there is someone looking to break down our Davis Cup bastion, who else are you going to call?