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Here’s Why Leander Paes Is Regarded As India’s Best Tennis Player Ever

Derailing of the Indian Express

For the 2000 season which was also an Olympic year, my two heroes decided to go their own way on the professional circuit even as they planned to join hands during their week(s) of national duty at the Davis Cup or the Olympics.
A part of me has still not been able to understand or reconcile myself with the split. Even now when I think of their split, I still feel the same regret and gnawing emptiness that I feel on the many opportunities that I have missed in my life.

It is perhaps right that fans and the objects of their affection stay in separate worlds.
For if the two worlds would meet, I would have had words to say.
I would not have understood that they were individuals with the right to fight and to even choose their own paths. Perhaps I would have told them that in my messy world of office politics and petty ambitions, they could have continued to inspire me, that they had an opportunity to reach sporting immortality, to be firmly placed as my sporting Gods.

It seems that my Gods died young….
And as the once inseparable partners went their own way, a part of me had to grow up too.
I realized that fairy tales do end. That my heroes were human too, like the world around me.

Other Heroes

Other heroes came up and I started following them as well. Our cricket team started playing with the same passion as Leander. Gopichand overcame injury to win the All England Championship and Anand became world champion at chess.

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Continued Davis Cup Success

The Indian Express also reunited to win another Grand Slam doubles title at the French Open in 2001 but it was a short lived reunion and before 2002 the Indian Express was back in the shed.

The duo could still combine very well and cared deeply for their country, to play Davis Cup with great success eventually putting up a world record 25 consecutive wins as doubles partners for India. Remarkably India still did well in Davis Cup and regularly reached the World Group Playoff (Top 24) till 2005. The vagaries of the Davis Cup draw, declining singles careers of our 2 stars along with the dents to the team spirit, however meant fewer BIG upsets.

Celebrating but not enjoying the success of the Indian Doubles Partner

On the professional circuit, Leander and Mahesh played with significant Grand Slam success with international partners. I followed their matches and admired Leander’s lethal reflexes and Mahesh’ powerful game, but for me something was missing when I saw these 2 doubles specialists play with other international partners even when they won Grand Slams.

It was like going to a birthday party but without your best friend. The cake and games and gifts were there, but no one with whom one could enjoy the party.

Wimbledon Victory with a Legend and Defeating Brain infection

By July 2003, in Leander’s own words he was the “vehicle for greatness” for Martina Navratilova and the two combined to win a Wimbledon Mixed doubles crown. In a few weeks after that Wimbledon triumph, Leander was in a cancer hospital for a suspected brain tumour that was later found to be neurocysticercosis, a parasitic brain infection.

Leander winning Wimbledon with Martina - while suffering from a serious ailment
Leander winning Wimbledon with Martina – while suffering from a serious ailment (Photo courtesy: Dailymail.co.uk)

For a moment I felt sad, the same way I would do for having missed out on keeping touch with a good friend, and in this case also a hero. Perhaps Mahesh felt the same about his friend as he went and spent time with Leander at the hospital.
Leander recovered as he has often done from setbacks, with his trademark resilience and was back to his best by 2004.

National Duty

In 2004, Leander and Mahesh came the closest to Olympic glory in Athens, eventually losing a 3rd place match to a Chilean team by the closest of margins. I was up till very late on a cold night watching the match on a small television, as our pair kept missing the opportunities they got in the match perhaps due to a lack of match practice.

The duo continued to override comments about their lack of practice time, even as they likened their partnership to riding a bicycle, while going on to claim the Gold medal at the Asian games in 2006

The Olympics however continued to bring despair in 2008, as our team found an inspired Roger Federer in their path, thereby spoiling my weekend lunch outing, though by now I was getting inured to their failures largely due to limited planning and preparation before the Olympics.

Next: Lessons from Leander

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