Davis Cup: Leander Paes' record-breaking win an ode to his never-say-die approach
The doubles victory saw Paes break free from Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli as the most successful doubles player in the team tournament.
There were many times during Saturday's doubles contest against the Chinese when Leander Paes looked every bit like a worn-out war hero. But there was still enough fight left in his limbs, and his heart, to take him over the finish line and into the record books.
Paes and Rohan Bopanna combined to eke past the Chinese pair of Mao-Xin Gong and Ze Zhang 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3) in the doubles rubber of the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I round two underway in Tianjin, China. It was just the spurt of energy India needed to regroup and bounce back from a 0-2 deficit from Friday. Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who was picked ahead of Sumit Nagal, won their respective singles matches in straight sets to help India clinch the tie 3-2.
The doubles victory also saw Paes break free from Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli as the most successful doubles player in the team tournament. His 43 wins have come in 56 ties, while Pietrangeli took 66 ties for his 42. The Indian also stands fifth in the most number of wins in Davis Cup, with a record of 91-35.
“Creating the world record is something special,” Paes said from Tianjin on Saturday. “It’s taken 29 years of perseverance, of hard work. I know how hard I’ve worked, away from the lights, that has helped me appreciate it even more. The record belongs to my family, every single Davis Cup captain, especially Naresh Kumar who gave me the opportunity early on, and to every doubles partner. It is India’s record.”
It is a fitting global recognition for a player who chose the Davis Cup, more than any other tournament, as his life's work. Even though the 44-year-old’s exploits are now limited to doubles, he has scored some memorable upsets since making his India debut at the age of 16 in 1990. A high-strung teenager then, Paes had shown maturity and fortitude beyond his years to grind out a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 18-16 win, along with Zeeshan Ali, against Shuzo Matsuoka and Shigeru Ota to give India a 2-1 lead against Japan. India eventually won that tie 4-1.
Zeeshan Ali is the coach of the current Davis Cup team and Mahesh Bhupathi, with whom Paes has scripted 25 Cup doubles victories, is now the non-playing captain.
“Having Mahesh and Zeeshan around when I got the world record was great,” said Paes, who shared a warm embrace with Bhupathi after the match. “The record I have with Mahesh (25 wins, of which 24 were on the trot) is something I am very proud of.”
Over the years, the Indian team’s blue jersey became Paes’ identity, his armour against the big boys of world tennis. Paes wasn’t the biggest player or the biggest hitter, but his athleticism and keen mind took him into unchartered territory. Nowhere did he punch above his weight more than Davis Cups: Paes defeated Henri Leconte on French clay to lead India to a historic 3-2 win in 1993 and two years later , beat Goran Ivanisevic on grass in hot and humid New Delhi to help the team beat Croatia.
The victory over China will never be of the same historical importance or have the David-beating-Goliath ferocity to it. Nor did it have the distinct Paes magic. But, like so many of those shots in his prime, it was timed to perfection.
Doubles has been India’s pillar of strength in Davis Cups, and the team once again needed Paes-Bopanna to keep the tie alive. The two don’t share the best off-court rapport, and they didn’t always move in sync on-court. But when the veterans were pushed to the edge by the Chinese, they delivered.
Paes-Bopanna squandered a 4-1 lead, as the former was broken twice in the opening set. Bopanna kept his side of the court with some spectacular serving, but as a team they were still struggling for rhythm. Even though Paes’ hands can still conjure some impossible shots, his feet have slowed down considerably. Zhang and Gong targeted the oldest man on court, daring him to bring on his famed magic. Though Paes would prove more than an equal match while volleying, he wasn’t able to keep up in the rallies.
Zhang was serving for the match at 5-4 in the second-set tie-breaker when Bopanna hit a blinder of a return. A smacking forehand winner, which was laced with anger and frustration: the Chinese were supposed to be easy pickings in doubles, given India’s vast skill-set and experience. On the other side, Paes came up with a backhand return that went unanswered. In the blink of an eye, India had changed the tone of the match and, possibly, the tie.
“Full props to Rohan for keeping us in the second set,” Paes said. “I’m glad that he was there when I made the record.” As much as the two have made their dislike public, they have now scored two of India’s most memorable doubles wins in the recent past. The duo had also bounced back from two sets and a break down against Serbia’s Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac to score a stunning five-set win in the World Group Playoff match in Bangalore in 2014.
It has been a tough ride for Paes in the past couple of years. Even as he struggled to maintain the incredibly high standard he set for himself (18 Grand Slams) on tour, he lost his pride of place in India’s Davis Cup. Last April in Bangalore, he was dropped from the team for the first time on form and was sidelined for India’s World Group Playoff tie against Canada. He changed sponsors, changed partners, dropped down to playing Challengers when he couldn’t get an entry into tour events. But Paes roughed it out.
“I never stopped believing that I could make it back into the team,” says Paes. “I have also started doing well on the tour now, made the finals of Dubai Open, won a Challenger (Newport). And right now, I feel like with every extra match I am rewriting the history books.” And he’s not done with the fight, just yet.
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