HE didn’t do the unthinkable. He didn’t beat Andre Agassi at Atlanta. But Leander Paes had enough gas in his tanks to put it across Fernando Meligini of Brazil to win the bronze for India 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, the nation’s first individual event medal since 1948 when K.D. Jadhav won a wrestling bronze. And in so doing perhaps broke the jinx that marked him as a perennial aberration in the bio-rhythm of the ATP rankings. Had the dusky chip-and-charge player from Calcutta cashed in on the two set points he had against Agassi in the first set of his semi-finals, when he was leading 6-5, Atlanta might have been on the road to witness another of his famous upsets. But for 127-ranked Leander, reaching the semis itself was reason enough for the nation to be proud of. That he won bronze in the semi-final playoff was a bonus for 950 million Indians who for nearly two weeks saw the systematic demolition of all their medal hopes, principal amongst them being the poor showing of the hockey squad.
Commented Agassi after his match with Paes: “Leander’s done India proud. He has a soft pair of hands at the net. And if he is serving well he can certainly hold his serve. He also plays a little strange. He used about 25 drop shots against me. Some were good. He doesn’t allow you to get into a rhythm.”
In fact, for Paes the last few months have seen a surprising switching around in form for the better. Not so long back in April, at the McDowell Indian Open in Delhi, a despondent Paes sat in the stands a day after his first round loss to Byron Black of Zimbabwe. “The thing is,” he kept stressing, “I have been waiting for the big break for many years now and it hasn’t been coming.” Paes may well remember Atlanta ’96 as the milestone that marked his transition from being just a Davis Cup voodoo magician to having what it takes to slice through a ATP-like field.
Says Naresh Kumar, former Indian Davis Cup captain: “He got that mini-break at Newport, Rhode Island, just before the Olympics where he reached the semis. But essentially his good performance is a result of knocking at the door consistently and waiting for all the hard work to pay off.”
At Newport, incidentally, one of the players Paes made short work of was Black. His current run at Atlanta saw him scalp America’s Richey Reneberg, Nicholas Pereira of Venezuela, third seed Thomas Enqvist of Sweden and Renzo Furlan in the quarter-finals, setting him up for a semi-final showdown with Agassi, whose form this year has been far from intimidating. Says Ramesh Krishnan, former Indian tennis ace: “Leander’s form has definitely been on the upswing for the past many months. His chief assets right now are his quickness, improved concentration and, of course, the special desire to win which he seems to hoard for the big occasion.” The value of which Agassi himself recognised in the post-match press conference after he defeated Wayne Ferreira in the quarter-finals. Said Agassi: “I don’t think any road to a gold medal is easy. I don’t care who you are playing. There’s a lot of desire out there.”
That desire is something that Leander has been nurturing as a youngster. Says he: “I grew up looking at my father’s bronze medal hung up on the wall and I always wanted those Olympic rings around it. I wanted something of my own rather than my family’s.” His father, Dr Vece Paes, won a bronze as part of the Indian hockey team in the 1972 Munich Games, a year before Leander was born. Ironically, Leander was conceived smack during the Games itself—his mother Jennifer was a player on the basketball team. Says Leander: “I don’t know what happened. They were supposed to be concentrating on sport, not mucking around.”
PLAYING tennis since the age of five, Leander got his break when he was selected by the Britannia Amritraj Tennis academy in Madras. The training paid off and he was a little hurricane on the junior circuit in ’90, winning both the junior Australian and Wimbledon titles. Paes’ own moment of truth was in his semi-final encounter with Sasa Hirszon on his way to winning the Australia juniors. Says he: “It was 2-2 in the second set after I’d won the first, when Sasa complained to the chair umpire that my shoes were squeaking. I felt an inferiority complex creep in and I lost the second set and was trailing 2-5 in the third when I calmed down and thought the whole thing over for a minute. I was on the verge of losing, feeling inferior to just another human like me. I held that game and went up to the chair umpire and said: ‘I don’t care how much noise my shoes make. I have got to run, that’s my game.’ I didn’t lose a single game after that.”
Till date Leander has 21 singles victories out of 37 and 32 wins in 51 matches overall in the Davis Cup and helped India reach the quarter-finals three years back. The top names he has defeated in the championship include Frenchmen Henri Leconte and Arnaud Boetsch, Switzerland’s Jakob Hlasek, Wayne Ferreira of South Africa, Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia, and Jeremy Bates of UK.
The flip side is that Leander’s ATP rankings never reflect his Davis Cup heroics. He spends most of his time on the challenger circuits trying to sponge up enough points to break into the top 100 so as to gain a direct entry into the Grand Slam main draws. Comments his father Vece Paes in an interview to Sunday magazine: “At the moment, Leander earns roughly $50,000 as prize money annually whereas his training programme alone costs $200,000.” Leander has to plough back all his sponsorship gains into keeping himself afloat on the circuit. “It’s still not possible for me to hire a fulltime coach for myself. For example, I work a few weeks in the year with Tony Roche who charges something like $8,000 per week,” he says.
Leander trains in Orlando with Pat Etchebery, whom he regards as the world’s best. And of late he also has a trainer, Mike Rada, travelling with him. Says Paes: “Basically, he doesn’t know tennis at all. He’s there to keep me fit and away from injuries.”
Despite his Davis Cup reputation, the one thing Leander is most often asked to do at press conferences is to expand on the reasons for his lack of impact on the men’s tour where the real bread and butter lies for the tennis player. Explains he: “When I play for my country I don’t really expect anything. I have a lot of people supporting me whether it’s trainers or my captain. When I am on the tour, finances are a big problem. The first three or four years of my tour career I was alone. It takes a while to mature. It’s a Catch-22 situation. You can’t afford a coach when you need him most.”
Leander has three tennis idols, Pete Sampras for his technique, Ivan Lendl for the kind of hard work he put in and Jimmy Connors for his never-say-die spirit. Perhaps what he needs is a bit of luck coming his way. The sort that does justice to his brand of emotional tennis and gives us Indians the joy of watching one of us let loose a tennis cameo of high quality. A ten day patch of tennis wizardry that has one of us on the Olympic podium.