Davis Cup: Who will pull the crowds in India when Leander Paes is gone?
Yuki Bhambri may have been a top 100 player, Ramkumar Ramanathan may have the best serve on the team, but it was Leander Paes that the people sat in the aisles for.
Soon after I had booked tickets for my parents to watch India’s doubles rubber in the Davis Cup tie in Pune, my grandfather asked me if I could book two more. “We want to see Leander Paes play once in our lifetime”, he said. My grandparents, both well over 80, climbed three flights of stairs to get to the stadium; that is one flight more than they are used to, just a week after my grandmother was in hospital.
That is what Leander Paes does to people.
He did it to the 4000 strong crowd who packed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Sports Complex in Pune, for a doubles match that the the rankings said he would lose. In comparison, the singles rubbers, which the Indians were expected to win, packed only one stand. Yuki Bhambri may have been a top 100 player, Ramkumar Ramanathan may have the best serve on the team, but it was Paes that the people sat in the aisles for. How could they not?
For those in the crowd who belonged closer to my grandmother’s age than my own, he was the kid-star they saw grow up. Doing the impossible when it comes to Davis Cup. Doing the impossible when it comes to the Olympics. (Doing the impossible when it comes to splitting with Mahesh Bhupathi.)
That unbelievable win against France in 1993 to get to the World Group semifinal. Or the come-from-behind magic trick against top-tenner Goran Ivanisevic, ranked 116 places higher than him. Omnipresent Paes, in action on all three days, playing both singles and doubles. He was everywhere, doing everything, near every time.
And for the younger generation of fans, he is an enigma. They have read about him on page three as well as the back pages. They know which Grand Slam he last won as well as who he recently dated. They saw him come back from a brain lesion, they saw him win on tour and then they saw him become a pawn in the hands of the AITA around Olympic season – as do all players – and he gains their sympathy.
As for the purists, he is always watchable, even when not at his summit. Those hands at the net, kept young by yoga. The expert lobs, somehow finding the empty space above and behind his opponents. “He was the fastest guy in the world at the net,” Bhupathi said as late as 2015.
These are the fans Paes brings to the court. On Saturday, the 4000 odd people had come to watch Paes the star and Paes the occasional showman.
Which begs the question: who will pull the crowds when he is gone?
He will be gone, sometime. Paes is 43. He played his first Davis Cup match in 1990; his first partner is now the coach of the team. Many of the fans who watched him on Saturday weren’t even born when he first wore an India shirt. But his ranking has slipped to 64. The last time he sat inside the top 10 was three years ago. There are now three Indians ranked higher than him in doubles.
Still, it came as a surprise when reports surfaced that the AITA informally asked Paes to step away from national duty after this tie. It came a fortnight after it was announced that Mahesh Bhupathi will take over as captain. Although Paes has maintained that he has no plans of retiring and he would happily play under Bhupathi, it is not unlikely that Bhupathi has different ideas of who he wants in his team.
There is also the matter of this record. Paes is currently placed at 42 doubles wins, tied with Italian Hall of Famer Nicola Pietrangeli. Had Paes won against the Kiwi pair and claimed the record, perhaps the matter would have been settled in some minds. It would have been a nice way to go out. Now there is an air of unfinished business about his future. If India’s singles players close out this tie, then India will play either South Korea or Uzbekistan next. Neither nation have a highly ranked doubles pairing. But will Paes get a shot?
Purely on the basis of the last match he played on Saturday, it would be harsh to drop Paes. The Indians were up against a pairing that was ranked significantly higher, without their first (actually second) choice doubles team. Yet, Vishnu Vardhan and Paes took the first set, had five break points in the third, which they eventually lost in the tie breaker. Paes’ serve, considered the weaker aspect of his game, was broken only once, put under pressure only twice. While he did not finish some points at the net as well as could have, he was just as good or bad as the guys across him. And there were more than a few flashes of brilliance.
Paes, and indeed captain Anand Amritraj both defended the selection for this tie, saying that rankings alone cannot determine the best players for the country.
“What is the criteria for picking a team?” asked Paes after the game. “If you’re going on rankings, look at the way Yuki is playing. He is ranked in the 500s but he is the spearhead of our singles. Rankings to me don’t really justify playing for the country or Davis Cup. People handle this pressure situation differently. Some people crumble under pressure. Some people rise to the pressure," he said.
Perhaps the AITA want the younger players to get opportunities, and there is merit in that. But who are these younger players? Bopanna is 36. Divij Sharan and Purav Raja, who are currently ranked above Paes, are both past 30. Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan have age on their side, but are primarily singles players.
The bigger question is one that most of us forget to ask. What about the fans, the spectators, the viewers? The game’s biggest asset. Who will engage them? Who will remind them about tennis week in week out, with wins and losses, as Paes, Bhupathi, Sania Mirza and Bopanna have?
Much blame for this lack of a successor must go to the AITA, which is the guardian of the game in the country. Cricket, despite its ugly boardroom machinations, did well to ensure a robust junior competition produced a successor when Sachin Tendulkar decided to step away. Where is the Virat Kohli of tennis, asking questions of Paes with his racket? Where is the next Sania, biting at Mirza’s heels?
Leander Paes’ Davis Cup credit, accumulated so passionately in the 90s and 2000s, may just have run out. It would be useful to remember that he got to where he is after being smelted in the crucible of Davis Cup at the age of 16. If he exits, the next new kid on the block will be thrown into the deep end; they might drown, or they might set the water alight. Until that time, one thing is certain: My grandparents won’t be going to tennis matches, along with a lot of other people.
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