The man who is unequivocally identified with playing for the flag is back where it all began for him 26 long years ago. In February 1990, Leander Paes was a scrappy kid of 16 with just a finals appearance in the junior Australian Open that year. The feat had nudged him into the Davis Cup squad as a reserve. However, the spare wheel refused to stay at the back and instead came to the forefront when team captain Naresh Kumar chose to field him in the doubles against Japan. The two men from Calcutta – Zeeshan Ali with Paes – went on to a nail-biting 18-16 in the fifth and seal the tie. In the process a legend was born.
Now, Paes is back for his 53rd tie and the same Ali is now the coach of the Indian team. Paes has notched his way to be the fourth-best player ever in the history of the competition with a win-loss record of 89-33. On one side are this man’s achievements in this competition and on the other are those who look to doubt his commitment to playing for India.
Rohan Bopanna’s comments when he got in to practice with the rest of the team two days ago stoked a simmering controversy. The 36-year-old, who is presently ranked 14 in world doubles, again expressed dissatisfaction at being paired with Paes for the Olympics and appeared to question why he was not already here for the tie.
Paes, however, refused to take the bait when it was dangled his way on Tuesday. “Strong personalities can always have differences. Mahesh (Bhupathi) and I would hardly be on talking terms but when it came to playing for India, we were able to put everything else on the backburner. I think individual egos and perceptions may clash but when the flag is raised, all differences melt away,” said a mellow Paes. The 43-year-old veteran is obviously not giving vent to what must be seething inside and is instead looking to tone down any differences leading into the tie.
“For starters, I don’t believe any press report in toto. Individual interpretations creep in. I would rather have a one-on-one with Rohan and figure things out.” Prodded further, Paes appeared to lose his cool a wee bit before quickly donning the elder statesman’s mantle. “When the team comes together to play for India, we live in that moment. We forget what has been and what may be. It’s the now that matters because it’s about national pride. Hey, that’s the way it always was with the one guy I had the most public run-ins with (Bhupathi).”
He would rather focus on the positives. “Rohan is playing the best tennis of his life. He has a huge serve. I don’t foresee us having too many problems against the Koreans as long as we keep our minds focused on tennis.” Therein lay the rub. Of late, our tennis players have been getting more press for their remarks against each other than their accomplishments on court.
India take on South Korea in this Asia Oceania zone tie beginning Friday. Holding a tie on grass in this part of the country during the middle of the monsoon does make one wonder just what logic the national federation uses to figure these fixtures. But that notwithstanding, even before the first ball has been struck Bopanna has fired his verbal salvo. It remains to be seen whether Indian tennis can rise above its pettiness this week or continues to stay a public squabble.