Leander Paes (Source: PTI)
A 16-year-old boy who began his Davis Cup journey in 1990, baptised with fire, has perched himself on a pedestal from where it will require a superhuman effort to displace him.
He is 44 now, with a world record 43 doubles wins in Davis Cup to his credit. His contemporaries and even those who started their careers long after him have hung their racquets but Leander Paes continues to "re-invent" his game and add power in his legs to pull India through.
He did it today again and in the process earned a win which made him the most successful doubles player in the history of Davis Cup. Serving at 5-6 in the decisive third set, he was down 0-30 -- two points away from a defeat which would have embarrassed the nation -- but he logged four points in a row to keep India in hunt and eventually, in the company of Rohan Bopanna, sealed the much-needed win.
It inspired the youngsters to produce reverse singles wins and in the end India was rejoicing a memorable win.
"What a fabulous motivation. It is great to achieve the world record. I dedicate this record to my father, my parents, my daughter Aiyana, to every single Davis Captain I had had and to every singles Davis Cup doubles partner I had and this world record belongs to India," Paes told PTI in an exclusive interview after his historic win.
"I am so proud of being son of the soil and playing so long. Many many hard years of efforts, lots of ups and downs. I had to be very resilient," he said, reflecting on his journey.
He is already the most decorated Indian tennis players with 18 Grand Slam titles. He has been showered with encomiums since he began his incredible journey and the honours of Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan fittingly came his way. He has pulled off some incredible victories but struggled to qualify this record and what this means to him.
"It is difficult to put in words after this win from 0-2 down. I had to play three matches for 16 years - two singles and one doubles. And now to go out there as one of the senior-most players of the team to motivate the boys, I take this responsibility very seriously. I hope with this record I can inspire lots of youngsters in whichever field they play or work in to believe that we Indians can be the world beaters and I can prove that Indians can be world champions," was all he could say.
And he is in no mood to retire. He appears even more fired up. "When it comes to playing for country, I am always available. I feel I am still able to motivate the boys and go out there, bring out the best in them in training and at the same to get that doubles point. It's such a crucial point as you saw in this tie. We were down 0-2 down and it could have been anybody's game. It was a team effort. It explains itself," he added.
Going back in time, Paes mentioned about the 24-match unbeaten streak he weaved with Mahesh Bhupathi in Davis Cup. "Winning those matches, staying undefeated is something very special. Mahesh and myself always had that respect for each other for what we achieved in tennis. Whenever it has come to playing for country we have put our differences aside and put the country first and that's what I respect about him."
The game of tennis is changing. It was already tough being alone on the Tour and it is becoming more and more brutal with the players taking physical fitness to insane levels. So what Paes thinks about the modern day game? Paes cited the example of Swiss great Roger Federer who has made several changes to his game to not only stay relevant but still dominate the tennis courts.
"Tennis is such an universal sport that you always have to re-invent your game. The players in different parts of the world are training on different surfaces around the world. Argentines, the Latin Americans are so used to playing on clay courts. The Serbians and the East Europeans are used to play on indoors right through the winters. The Americans like to play on outdoor, slow hard courts. You have the Australians, and the British and us the Indians, who are so used to play on grass courts surfaces a little bit."
"That's why I have tremendous respect for Roger Federer, who is so willing to reinventing his game regardless of surface he plays. He plays from baseline, serves and volleys. He is able to mix his game up. Transition game from baseline is such a unique art. That's what I keep try to emulate and try to keep re-inventing my game to not just play with the current players but also stay ahead of the lot. You need to be an all-court player. Physical and mental fitness is pre-requisite. That's where my whole focus has been in my career."
Even the Davis Cup is changing with new format in place, though the purists are scoffing at the changes proposed. "Everything in life evolves. We have to evolve with it. As athletes we have to keep re-invent ourselves. Having the World Group in one location where all nation can come and play is good one. To reduce the matches from five sets to three full sets with ad points, is very good thing."
"The players can travel on a Sunday to the next destination. When they are playing on Sunday, they travel to next tournament on Monday, get there on Tuesday and play on Wednesday. So travelling on Sunday is great implementation," he said, lending support to the new two-day format in Davis Cup.