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India stage for year-end show

Calcutta, Sept. 13: If Leander Paes proposes, how can Martina Navratilova refuse'

The idea of the red-hot mixed doubles team playing some exhibition matches in India was popped up a couple of months ago and Martina had readily agreed. And even though a brain lesion subsequently rocked Leander’s life, Martina remains steadfast in her commitment: she is willing to make the trip to India as and when her good friend and ‘true partner’ is ready.

That day doesn’t seem too far off and the proposed series in different cities could materialise sometime in November or December. “That’s the best time as it’s off-season for players both on the ATP and WTA Tour,” a source told The Telegraph.

Of course, there are a couple of important riders attached to the fulfilment of this dream project.

First and foremost is Leander’s recovery from the parasitic infection which laid him low almost a month ago. The family and, indeed, the entire nation breathed a sigh of relief the day it was ascertained that the four-millimetre inflammation on the left side of Leander’s brain was not a cancerous tumour.

But even a worm infection in the brain can take weeks to heal. Next Thursday’s MRI would, in fact, reveal how much it has responded to medication over the past fortnight.

The hint of tension notwithstanding, there is a quiet optimism in the Paes camp. Though Leander is reconciled to the fact that he would be missing India’s next Davis Cup tie versus Holland and five ATP tournaments thereafter, he is eyeing two events before 2003 becomes history. One is the season-ending Masters Doubles Championship in Houston for which he and Czech partner David Rikl should qualify even if they don’t play any more tournament together. The other is the proposed series with Martina.

Not often does a living legend, who owns almost every tennis record in the book, agree to visit an alien country to play exhibition matches. It’s the special bond she enjoys with the Indian ace which influenced her decision, and Leander is determined to utilise this opportunity.

A project of this magnitude will never see the light of the day unless it receives the corporate sector’s blessings. And despite cricket taking up the lion’s share of big companies’ sport budgets, a one-off project involving Martina seems to have enough takers.

A couple of ‘heavyweight’ sponsors showed interest when they were approached almost a month back, and a private TV channel was more than keen to consider live coverage, but Leander’s hospitalisation has put negotiations on the back-burner.

It’s time now to revive those talks and that is one of the reasons why Leander is set to shift base from Orlando to Mumbai in a week’s time after taking doctors’ permission to fly. He will still need to rest and be under Dr B.S. Singhal’s supervision, but that won’t stop him from trying to ‘sell’ the Martina project.

Details of the series can only be finalised after discussions with potential sponsors, but as per the preliminary proposal, Australian Open and Wimbledon champions Leander-Martina will play against another established mixed doubles pair in three or four cities in as many days.

In case two more big enough names cannot be convinced to take part in the exhibition series, some celebrity tennis players will be approached to test their skills against the 46-year-old American legend and the 30-year-old Indian maestro.

The only jarring note is the absence of Leander’s hometown from the preliminary shortlist, but it’s a market-driven effect. Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai are high up on the sponsors’ wish-list. The City of Joy may get left out, as indeed could the nation’s capital.

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