All the layers of intrigue had been peeled back by the third day, past the third hour. It was tennis, and sport, at its rawest. One against the other; two men striving desperately, for survival, for glory. Separated by a flimsy net, surrounded by a crowd going delirious on a hot April day in Mumbai. Leander Paes versus Aqeel Khan. India versus Pakistan. Fifth rubber, fifth set.
The Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I tie in 2006 had generated quite a buzz ever since they were drawn together. In terms of a sporting contest, they ticked all the right boxes: arch rivals, evenly-matched teams, star power.
Paes was India's playing captain, a doubles legend already who played singles only in the Davis Cup and only when required. India had the choice of ground and the captain was in a position to call the shots. His partner, Rhea Pillai, was expecting their child around the Davis Cup tie, scheduled from 7 to 9 April. To make sure that he was close by to witness his the birth of first child and yet be well-prepared for the crucial Davis Cup encounter, Paes requested for a venue in Mumbai, a city where he was based. Grass had always been India's preferred surface for the team tournament. Mumbai did not have any grass courts at the time. So a makeshift tennis stadium, with temporary wooden seating, was erected in the north corner of the Brabourne Stadium.
Pillai gave birth to their baby daughter, Aiyana, on the Monday before the tie. But Paes turned up earnestly every day of the week, twice a day for the practice sessions. Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj were in charge of the singles duties then and had the skills to make an impact on grass. Bopanna, with his booming serves and big game, and Amritaj with his chip and charge game, were solid bets. Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi made the doubles team, and that point was as good as sealed.
The India-Pakistan rivalry is much storied in cricket and hockey but hadn't touched tennis that often. India had been much better at the game and in their five previous Davis Cup ties, Pakistan had been blanked thrice and won a match each in 1963 and 1970. But in 2006, the Pakistani team was riding a wave. Most of it was due to one man: Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi. His serve and volley game was top-notch, as neat and nuanced as some of the masters from across the border. He had almost single-handedly taken Pakistan to a World Group Play-off the previous year, an incredible feat considering the team didn't have a single player ranked in top-200.
The choice of venue for the India-Pakistan tie was interesting because the Pakistani cricket team had not played in Mumbai. Ever since the controversy in 1991, when some members of the Shiv Sena dug up the pitch at the Wankhede Stadium, it has been prudent to keep Pakistan cricket away from the city.
But Davis Cup doesn't quite stir national passions as a game of cricket can and hence there were no bumps in the road for the teams or organisers. The bilateral relations between the countries were on the mend and the political circles were happy to indulge them. The draw ceremony was a fancy affair and took place at the sea-side bungalow of Mumbai's mayor.
On the tennis court, Pakistan had pinned their hopes on Qureshi and the then 26-year-old delivered on that promise by dismissing Bopanna 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4 in the opening match of the tie and then defeated Amritraj 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in the reverse singles on Sunday to level the tie 2-2.
Amritraj had won the first point for India as he quelled a brave challenge by Aqeel Khan on the first day and won his singles 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 6-4. Aware that doubles was a lost cause, Pakistan fielded an inexperienced team of Jalil Khan and Asim Shafik, who were completely outclassed by the Grand-Slam winning duo of Paes and Bhupathi.
The humidity on the final day, Sunday, was absolutely punishing. Qureshi had also suffered from cramps during his match against Amritraj, which lasted two hours and 38 minutes, and had to be taken to the hospital later for dehydration. But the Pakistani player had overcome that, and a lapse in the third set to make sure his team stayed alive in the tie.
In a surprise decision, India decided to field Paes, 32 then, for the fifth and final rubber instead of Bopanna. Mainly because Paes, it was deemed, would be better at handling that kind of pressure. The fact that he had played only one singles match the previous year – also a Davis Cup match against Uzbekistan's Denis Istomin—was secondary.
A perfect mix of experience and artistry saw Paes win the first two sets. While the Indian captain, striding confidently, walked away for a bathroom break, Khan was left to rue the lost opportunity. With his head under a towel, Khan shed a few tears before play resumed.
But it was Paes who lost his rhythm after the break. He was broken in the fourth game and started losing the quick exchanges at the net. The air was thick and hot with no breeze to disturb it and Paes, India's hero at many a Davis Cup tie, went down with cramps. He took a medical time-out but struggled to even stand steady. Barely moving between points, Paes lost the third set and was blanked in the fourth set as he waited for the medicines to kick-in.
In 2006, tennis players past the age of 30 were still seen as spent forces. And Paes' readiness for a physical singles encounter was tested thoroughly. His opponent Khan, who plied his trade mainly in the ITF Futures events at the time, was also drained but with a historic win in sight, he soldiered on.
Like he has on so many occasions before, Paes came up with his best with his back to the wall. The Indian saved three break points in the first game of the fifth set, his quick hands coming to the rescue of his tired legs. The cheers of a small but intense crowd rang around the stadium; the players' bench erupted in celebration, clappers in hand, as Paes got over that bump. He was back, alive and kicking. On the other side of the net, Khan knew his very real chance at national glory had slipped.
With their legs and arms creaking, the last set was played on sheer will. Khan tried desperately to shake Paes off, to run him down, but he couldn't match the Indian's wit. Or heart. Having won an early break, Paes kept pressing the advantage, with his own one-two punch of drop shots followed by lobs. After three hours and 40 minutes, Paes won the match 6-4, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 0-6, 6-1.
"When the chips are down you can't trust anyone better than Paes to do the job for India in Davis Cup," Bhupathi said after the match.
Even as the fans cheered wildly, both the players broke down for the sheer effort, physical and emotional, that had gone into it. Paes congratulated his opponent and the two acknowledged the crowd with arms raised together, like two prizefighters. Tennis had its own India-Pakistan story to tell.
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Updated Date: Feb 07, 2019 13:36:50 IST