Europe, the worst affected by the Pandemic at one time seems now ready to open up to sporting activities. Atleast Germany has defied the odds with football showing the way. The Bundesliga has begun in empty stadium. Italy is to follow suit and Spain too. These were the countries that were laid low by the COVID-19. So are we seeing light at the end of the tunnel!
Possibly and possibly not because the pandemic is still on and world by and large continues to reel. Thousands and thousands of sportspersons remain on their toes, praying for an early get back for there are dreams and dreams to be fulfilled, new milestones to be reached and what not. Only a sportsperson on the cusp of a major achievement could really understand the pain of this forced stalling of activities. One such for sure has to be Leander Adrian Paes, India’s tennis idol and an ageless wonder.
In exactly a week’s time, this lion-hearted player who had conjured up so many wonderful moments in tennis and earned rewards too, would be turning 47, an age when many of his ilk would perhaps have hung up their boots and racquets and taken to reminiscing the enjoyable past! But not this resolute man who has not just defied age but shown the world of tennis the fruits of his dedication, commitment and fixity of purpose with an array of achievements.
For Paes, the show is not over yet. The Indian great has played in 97 Grand Slam events and sure enough is keen to reach the 100 mark and why not! Further he had looked forward to the 2020 Tokyo Games to hopefully make it a record 8th appearance in this Games. No other sportsperson anywhere has ever done that. More than anything, Paes was keen that India should forever be at the top in terms of the number of Olympic appearances by a player.
That is the spirit of this redoutable player, one who wears his heart on his sleeve and nothing fires him up more than the sight of the fluttering national flag. Many would probably still recall the moment when he won a bronze medal in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and the tears of joy he shed becoming the first individual medal winner in the Games from India since boxer K D Jadhav’s bronze medal achievement way back in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
What a grand career it has been for this man from Kolkata! In some ways whatever has happened seemed in consonance with his pedigree_ his father Vece Paes is a former Hockey Olympian and so too his mother Jennifer, a basketball Olympian _ and that helps. The talent was there but the rest was his own sustained effort to reach the sky, so to say.
The first big move for him was shifting base to Chennai from Kolkata in the eighties to join the Brittania Amritraj Tennis Centre, launched by the Amritraj family. I remember, as a sports journalist, seeing this 15-year bubbly kid there then. Chief Coach David O’Meara would refer to him as a ‘promising player’. Sure enough it did not take long before he began to make his presence felt in tournaments around until in 1990 the first big break came, the junior Wimbledon title.
He was only the third Indian to achieve this coveted honour, behind Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan and that confirmed the high rating that he had already begun to get. There was no looking back from there for young Paes, as he grew from strength to strength on the road to fame. Three decades have gone by since. With a basketful of Grand Slam titles in doubles (including mixed) and a record too to boot in this, not to forget the Atlanta Olympics medal and Asian Games (2002, Busan) gold medal success too, Paes has touched a peak which will not be easy to scale.
It has been a long journey but the strong will in him remains intact and a fitness too to back that. He remains game for any challenge and that is why as he looked at the gloomy settings that the pandemic has brought, Paes is not crestfallen. Grand Slam tournaments in the year so far have gone and so also the Tokyo Olympics (rescheduled to 2021). Though he had thought of 2020 as his final year as an active tennis player surely he would prefer now to wait before making a final call. One more year is no small period for any sportsperson but as said earlier he still had a few more things to do and that should egg him on before he sews up his illustrious career.
The man still enjoys playing and even if it was not exactly a smooth ride right through, Paes held on admirably. True, he has had his share of setbacks and disappointments. Only a few years ago there was an open revolt against him by members of the Davis Cup squad. His captaincy was snatched away from him.
Then again his misunderstandings with Mahesh Bhupathi have all been well chronicled. Adversities that way did strike him no doubt but still when on a tennis court there can be few who can delight as he does. He knew to put all his hardships behind and look ahead. For a man of his mettle and for all that he had done for the sport in India, it would be a sad day indeed if Paes was to leave the arena without the final dream he had been chasing. Will he of will he not reach the figure of 100 in Grand Slam participation and 8 Olympic appearances? Only time will tell.