Before the days of cable and satellite television and days of European Football and Formula One, Indian television largely beamed only two sports-one obviously was cricket and the other was tennis. Semi Finals and Finals of Grand Slams were shown live and of course every three months, the last three days of the week were dedicated to the Davis Cup. India had quite a memorable run in the Davis Cup in the early and mid-nineties. Sundays were the days when the reverse singles were played and the performance of one individual has ensured that some Sundays will remain etched in my memory forever.
I am quite positive that no individual enjoys working on a Sunday afternoon as much as Leander Paes. It was on a Sunday afternoon that Leander Paes defeated Henry Leconte, it was on a Sunday afternoon that Goran Ivensevic and Croatia were humbled (on grass-6-0 in the final set) in Jaipur, it was on a Sunday afternoon that Paes stretched Jim Courier to the final set, it was on a Sunday afternoon that Wayne Ferrera was defeated. It was on a Sunday that Marc Rosset was defeated and Jeremy Bates was humbled. If you followed tennis in the nineties, you will realize that these were big names. But it did not matter to Leander Paes. When he played Davis Cup for India, Leander Paes was sensational.
Quite Simply, Leander Paes was the super man of Indian sports. At a time when the Tendulkar obsession had not quite reached the levels it has today, at a time when India did not have many sporting heroes to choose from, Leander Paes made us believe that the unthinkable was possible. At Atlanta in 1996, he did something that was beyond the realms of our wildest fantasies. Indians did not win individual medals at the Olympics we were told. Well Leander did. For ten days in Atlanta in 1996, he played some sensational tennis to win a bronze medal. To put it simply, for those ten days he was the third best player in the world.
And his superhuman deeds continued. He defeated Pete Sampras at Indian Wells, and led 6-3 4-0 against World number 1 Andre Agassi at the US open before nerves took over. Leander continued to play and we kept dreaming. In 1998, he was joined by Mahesh Bhupati and the two of them stretched our imagination further. They started winning grand slams – and in 1999 they made the finals of all four grand slams. For the first time there was Indian interest during the second week of a grand slam. Leander Paes could do no wrong.
Alas all good things had to end. Paes and Bhupati split 2000. They kept coming back and giving us hope –only this time the hopes and dreams would be shattered. Superman kept saying that playing for the country was ultimate for him but kept doing things which made us doubt whether it actually was. He was made Davis Cup captain but his players revolted against him. He kept falling out with young Indian players and kept telling us how much he had achieved for the country but refused to acknowledge the contributions of others. He believed he could do no wrong but it was becoming apparent for us that something was not right. A tiny thought kept appearing in my mind- Perhaps the superman was not so super at after all.
Nothing illustrated this more than his decision to split with Mahesh Bhupati at the end of 2011 with the Olympics 6 months away. If winning a medal was so important to Paes then he would have carried on playing with Bhupati. If reports are to be believed then it was his decision to separate. The consequence of that split was that Bhupati teamed up with Rohan Bopanna, played on the tour, won a masters event and qualified for the Olympics.
It is therefore wrong for the AITA to ignore the effort put up by these two and to send only one team- Paes and Bhupati. It is wrong for Paes to claim that since he is the highest ranked Indian he has the right to choose his partner. He has definitely the right to play but with a partner who is willing to play with him. Two individuals have practiced and played together for 7 months and qualified for the Olympics. They deserve to play together. To tell one of them now that he cannot play and to tell the other he will have to play with someone else is totally unfair. Indeed the point that most are missing is that if Paes and Bhupati play at the Olympics, it will mean that Boppana will not play and that will be cruel on this young tennis player.
At Sydney, at Athens and at Beijing, Leander and Mahesh played, totally unprepared, totally uncohesive. Apart from brief moments in Athens they never looked like winning a medal. Mahesh and Boppana may perhaps not win a medal but they are definitely more prepared and more likely to win a medal than Paes- Bhupati or Paes Bopanna.
To team up with his partner a week before and then make a serious challenge for the Olympic medal will require super human efforts. Leander Paes has given us a lot of joy and achieved a lot for the country. But- he is not a superman.