The backhand volley interception at match point, which gave Leander Paes his 14th Grand Slam doubles title, encapsulated the essence of his qualities. You can call the interception his trademark, or for the starry eyed like me, would herald it as the seal of a great tennis king.
Years ago the iconic Australian coach Harry Hopman told me “what goes up on the result board is the bible of tennis”. We wept in joy when Leander won two titles at the Wimbledon 1999 — the men’s doubles and the mixed doubles. It was the first span of his three-decade journey at the top of the world of doubles.
My close association with him was enriching. Fourteen Grand Slams is celestial stuff. When I was made the non-playing captain of the Davis Cup team, his enthusiasm blasted me out of my comfort zone and fired me up. He is a born leader.
In his Davis Cup and other encounters, he flung ATP rankings out of the window when it really mattered. When he lost in the junior finals in Australia, he came to see me and said: “I am sorry, Sir. I promise I will win the Wimbledon junior title.”
I nodded sagely saying to myself: “Stupid fool. He doesn’t know what he is talking about.” But he kept his promise and won the Wimbledon junior title by producing winners at crucial points against Marcus Ondruska, a very highly rated South African prospect.
So what are the other flamboyant hues in Paes’ plumage? First, it is his strident attitude and confidence, backed by courage and an inexhaustible adrenaline tank.
A never-say-die spirit fuels him to peak at crucial points. His gait as a 16-year-old, which Akhtar Ali accurately described as ‘phutani’, was not hollow. It was rich with substance.
He is blessed with great athleticism and lightning reflexes, with which he rules from the net. I remember describing him as a helicopter gunship hovering at the net, shooting down the passing shots of his confused opponents.
He seems to have a sixth sense in anticipating passing shots. Like a football dribbler at the net, he confuses his opponents with phantom feints.
One of the television commentators I think was Luke Jensen — a former US doubles great. He was in raptures over Leander’s ability.
He said that the only weakness in Leander’s game was his slow service, specially the second serve which was in the 80mph range.
My contention is that Leander’s service, though slow, has very good depth and placement and that gives him some extra time to get to the net.
On a lighter note, to my great amusement following a fusillade of errors in the first set by Bruno Soares and Alexander Peya, Jensen commented that Christmas had come early this year for Radek Stepanek, and Paes.
At 40, Leander’s reflexes are certainly not as good as his early days. But he has made up for it by considerably improving his return of service on the forehand side and more so on his backhand, where he has developed a disguised chipped lob and a top spin return of the opponents second serve.
The punishing schedules of his fitness programme are carried out with a devotional consistency and intensity. It is a late but colourful autumn of a glorious career.
One more step forward in the Australian Open, which is only a few months away, could well be the 15th Grand Slam in the glorious career of the boy from Beckbagan.