IN EVERY sport, there is a hero, someone who carries the burden of pressure with élan. Leander Paes has been that hero in Indian tennis. For more than a decade, he was at its vanguard.
Now in the role of guide, his efforts in helping his team will be put to test when India meet Uzbekistan in the Asia-Oceania zone Davis Cup tie with Rohan Bopanna and debutant Somdev Dev Varman at the forefront.
The doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi and Prakash Amritraj, sidelined in favour of Dev Varman, are the two key members.
Uzbekistan would be playing on their least favourite surface, grass. But with the likes of Denis Istomin and Farrukh Dustov, ranked 183 and 249 in the world, respectively, they cannot be taken lightly.
Both teams have a 1-1 head-to-head record in Davis Cup. The team rankings too are close. India are placed 29th, while the Uzbeks are No. 30.
Paes's big play has been the selection of Dev Varman over Amritraj for the opening singles. The 23-year-old Dev Varman, who takes on the experienced Istomin in Friday's second match, is being seen as a bright prospect.
Paes says he has watched him play and brings an "X-factor" to the team.
The reigning NCAA champion comes into the tie with a Futures title in Florida (he won eight straight singles matches) and completed a maiden doubles crown in the company of collegemate Treat Huey without dropping a set. It was his first International Tennis Federation (ITF) title overseas.
Paes considers Dev Varman to be a fearless soldier brimming with confidence. Dev Varman feels the same. He claims to not be worried about Istomin, who stretched Lleyton Hewitt to four sets in the second round of the Australian Open last month.
"There is no pressure on me," he said. "I have a great opportunity and I'm feeling good. The pressure is on the opponent, not us."
Varman goes into his match after Bopanna takes on Dustov. Bopanna too is confident he can give India a solid start.
"I have never played Dustov before. But I have full faith I can pull it off," said Bopanna.
In doubles, as Paes said earlier, the Uzbeks shouldn't stand a chance. Bhupathi and Amritraj are the overwhelming favourites.
Over the week, Paes has seemed clear in his thoughts. He has said countless times he is picking the best team for the tie. He considered himself unselfish by not pushing himself to play when injured and welcomed Bhupathi back to the team.
Now what remains to be seen is whether Dev Varman makes his debut a memorable one for himself and his team.