He is only 5 feet 10 inches tall, has won just one singles title on the ATP tour, and has barely managed to win 7.5 million dollars in prize money over a career spanning two-and-a-half decades. Also, nobody expected him to be on the list of World Number One tennis players!
If these were only metrics that defined an athlete’s status in the pantheon of sporting excellence, Leander Adrian Paes would fare considerably below most of our cricket stars, including the upstarts who are starting up via the IPL route.
However, mere numbers cannot measure this diminutive and affable sportsman’s success. For, his is a journey characterized by boundless courage, unparalleled commitment, oodles of personal pride and an almost ‘martial’ (Fauji) attitude to nationalism.
These very qualities, apart from his remarkable reflexes and slick footwork have made Leander Paes a sporting icon adored by both the old and young. At a time when all his contemporaries are cooling their heels behind a microphone or in their air-conditioned living rooms, this 40-year-old is getting ready for yet another battle on the tennis court.
Of course, the personality cult of India's sporting fan may not have actually put Leander Paes on the same pedestal as a Sachin Tendulkar or even a Major Dhyan Chand, but history will surely portray him as a sportsman who wore his patriotism on his sleeve and played his heart out for his country.
Growing up in Delhi during the 1970s, my early association with Indian tennis was one of skepticism. Barring Vijay Amritraj, all Indian players appeared to be Lilliputian in stature compared to my idols – Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
Once the Amritraj brothers exited from the world scene, I grew even more despondent as the big serve-and-volley specialists arrived to set off the ‘boom-boom’ era, a power play mode that left little scope for artistry and finesse.
The heart fluttered occasionally when touch artist Ramesh Krishnan got the better of a big-serving McEnroe or a rotund Nandan Bal managed to win an occasional singles tie in an inconsequential Davis Cup encounter.
Then came news of an Indian teenager winning the Junior Wimbledon title. The boy’s name was Leander Paes and his mentors at the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy (Chennai) predicted a bright future for their protégé. All very well, but for the fact that a certain Boris Becker had won senior Wimbledon aged 17!
Sadly for Paes, his exploits as the number one junior player in the world always paled in comparison before the high-octane performances of the likes of Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich and Jim Courier during the early 1990s.
Any discussion about Leander Paes automatically induced snickers among fans of the ‘boom-boom’ brigade comprising 200-plus km serves and vicious swinging forehands and backhands. However, the small section of fans who believed in the glory of Davis Cup tracked Paes growth into a committed team player who was ready to shed blood on court if it helped his country win.
Who can forget his memorable encounter against the big serving Croat Goran Ivanisevic in New Delhi or his chest-thumping celebration after winning India’s first individual Olympics medal after four decades at Atlanta?
There were also memorable matches against Wayne Ferreira, Jan Simmerink, Jakob Hlasek and the classic Davis Cup tie against France on red clay where the Indians got the better of Henri Leconte and Arnaud Boetsch.
In between all this chest-thumping patriotic action, Paes also quietly created a niche for himself in doubles play, winning a record 50 titles thus far and looking eager to add a few more to his trophy cupboard before finally hanging up his tennis racquet.
On his 40th birthday, we wish Leander Paes many more titles and hope the new generation will carry forth his tradition of sporting patriotism.