The moment arrived as Leander Paes, slow and somewhat resigned to his fate, stepped in to serve. The weight of silence in the stadium pressed down on him. For the past fifty something minutes, the ‘ageless’ Paes had been sluggish and errant, hoping to conjure stray sparks of magic for his fans. Not here, not today.
It was his opponents, and one-time partners, Purav Raja and Ramkumar Ramanathan, who were wielding the wand. And Raja whipped a backhand return winner on Paes’ serve on match point, to close one chapter of the legendary Indian’s career. Paes, playing with Matthew Ebden, went down 2-6, 1-6 to Raja-Ramkumar in only 56 minutes in the quarter-finals of the Tata Open Maharashtra, which was his last ATP Tour event in India, late on Thursday evening.
“Today, I was very ordinary,” said the 46-year-old Paes, who has announced that 2020 will be his last season. “First day I was pretty damn good. That's sport, right? But today I really got to commend Purav and Ram. They were on a roll and things were working in their favour, right from that first break-point, that mishit forehand over the head. Everything they touched today was gold. So we lost to a better team today and good luck to them.”
Blocking out the emotion of the moment, Raja and Ramkumar had put on one of their most clinical performances. They made 84 percent of the first serves, lost only six points on their serve and didn’t concede a single break point. While Ramkumar’s power from the back of the court made the difference, Raja beat Paes at his own game, volleying. Even as the 35-year-old Raja apologised to the crowd, who hoped for their favourite to pull off another incredible comeback, Paes packed his bags, acknowledged the crowd and disappeared behind the wings.
“I just said thank you (to the fans),” Paes told the media later. “Those lines of a tennis court have given me so much. I've lived a lot of my life within those lines. There's just flashbacks of matches I have played... flashbacks of moments, flashbacks of memories. I'm the sort of guy that through my whole career, I really haven't read or watched the archives. Because I'm always trying to stay in the moment. When I look back, it's like, it's like a picture rail...it's quite surreal. I don't know if I've grasped this one last roar yet. It's like a journey in itself.”
All week, fans of all ages, had been following him around the stadium, hoping for one autograph, one selfie, one glimpse of Paes before he finally walks into the sunset. Like he has been for over two decades, the Indian is the biggest star in the tournament line-up. But with Paes on his farewell lap, that won’t be the case anymore. And he might take as much time to come to terms with that, as his fans will.
“This is not easy for me,” he says, with a hint of emotion. “There's nothing else that pushes me, or I wake up every morning that I could play for.”
“There have been so many times when I thought, ‘this is it’,” he recalls. “I remember in 1991 I was sleeping in a locker room in Goldsboro, Germany. And I travelled for 10 months in the whole season, and hadn't come home once I got so burnt out that I thought that was it. I threw my rackets in the cupboard. And for eight weeks I didn't play. I thought that was enough. That was right at the start of the journey. Then in 2003, when I was in a cancer hospital for a few months, I thought that that was done. Because I put on 128 pounds approximately. In 2016, when my daughter had a surgery, and I was off the circuit for about seven months, I thought that I was done. But I feel like right now, the evaluation of what else is there to do with tennis?”
Even as Paes is searching for motivation, the All India Tennis Association (AITA) has included him in the team for the Davis Cup World Group Qualifiers against Croatia in March. It will give Indian tennis fans another avenue for nostalgia, given that one of Paes’ biggest victories came against the Balkan nation. Paes, who saves his best work, or at least did, while playing for the country, had beaten Goran Ivanisevic, already a Wimbledon finalist at that time, in 1995 on grass in New Delhi to help India to a 3-2 win.
“Retirement or no retirement, they have to pick the best team,” Paes said of the tie, which is scheduled to be played in Zagreb on 6-7 March. While he is one of the six players in the squad, along with Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Sumit Nagal, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan, as of now, the team will be further trimmed to five.
“I feel like Croatia is going to be a very tough team. Depth in the Croatian team is incredible. Especially in doubles. You've got a Mate Pavic, Ivan Dodig, two of the best players in the world at the moment. No matter who you put in doubles, that tie is going to be very tough. That's part of the reason why I'm playing in Bangalore next week, and then I'm playing in Dubai two weeks after that, leading into the Davis Cup camp. I think it's important to get matches. When it comes to playing for the country, I will always put myself forward. But I will always say that the best team should play.”
Davis Cup may be an immediate goal, but Paes is already looking ahead, hoping for success beyond the tennis court.
“There's so many things to still win,” he says. “I could say a Grand Slam, I could sit here and say an Olympic medal. I could sit here and say Davis Cup, or to get India to the World Group. But I think if I can transition from being a professional athlete, where most athletes have trouble with it, into my second innings, if I do that journey well over the next 18 months, I will probably be happy."
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Updated Date: Feb 07, 2020 17:55:25 IST