| Leander Paes at the Tollygunge Club golf course Saturday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Calcutta, Nov. 23: From the rugged terrain of the ATP circuit to the sprawling fairways in Delhi and Calcutta is one helluva soothing change. For a tennis pro trying his best to erase memories of a catastrophic year, it’s the ideal balm.
Just the other day, Leander Paes rubbed shoulders with Fijian hotshot Vijai Singh in an exhibition event at the capital. On Saturday, Paes had current Indian leader Mukesh Kumar for company in the Royal Challenge Grand Prix pro-am meet at the Tollygunge Club. The doubles ace took to the course as a fish to water, managing a card of plus 12.
On Tour, golf is Paes’ favourite pastime. He has no dearth of knowledge on the game and is most willing to share his experience on the greens. However, the moment tennis crops up, Paes takes evasive action. He refuses to be drawn into any discussion on what went wrong this year and why.
Nothing much went right for Paes ever since Mahesh Bhupathi split their successful partnership in March after committing to play with him for the entire year. Paes’ search for a suitable partner took him to a dead-end, while Bhupathi prospered as his new liaison with Max Mirnyi clicked in next to no time.
Paes first tried out South African John-Laffnie De Jager but the duo didn’t win one match in four tournaments.
With Australian Michael Hill, the former world No. 1 failed to clear the first hurdle thrice.
There was no change in luck with the four other partners he tested — Stephen Huss of Australia, Czech Tomas Cibulec, French Mikael Llodra and American Justin Gimelstob. A dozen first-round exits in 24 tournaments tells its own tale.
The year-end balance-sheet shows a 22-22 win-loss record — by far his poorest return since 1997. His earnings from prize-money was a meagre $124,447, again a six-year low. And he finished the season 33rd on the individual doubles list — a far cry from the top-10 status he regularly enjoyed till recently.
But for the two titles he won in Chennai and Mallorca (both with Bhupathi) and a semi-final appearance at the French Open (with Cibulec), there was little joy for a man unaccustomed to sustained failure.
No wonder Paes has retreated into a shell. He has obviously decided to let his tennis do the talking.
“Let’s not talk of the past, I would rather look forward,” he told The Telegraph.
What will he do differently to reverse the losing trend' For starters, he has a new partner in Czech David Rikl.
“Having looked at all options, he (Rikl) is the best bet… He’s a very experienced player and I am hoping for the best. We’ll see how it goes in the first two-three months and take it from there,” said the triple Grand Slam titlist.
He had said he would ideally have a partner who was younger and full of energy. “I was looking at somebody like Llodra but it didn’t work out,” Paes remarked.
Paes would not go into any guessing game on what 2003 holds in store. “I have no expectations from the coming season… All I can say is I will work hard and try to get back into the top-10.”
The preparations are already in place. “Off-season workouts are important and so there can be no let-up even when there are no tournaments.”
The ‘real’ preparation would start earlier than normal. “I would be leaving for Orlando in the first week of December to train and be ready for the start of the season,” he informed.
The season begins on December 30 with three tournaments in Chennai, Doha and Adelaide.
Normally, there would be no doubt about Chennai being his first stop but this year is different in the sense that he wouldn’t be playing with Bhupathi.
Additionally, Paes has got a singles wild card in the Doha event where Rikl is keen on playing. “I have got singles wild cards in both Chennai and Doha, so I have to decide which one to refuse. I am trying to work out an arrangement with David about the first week,” said Paes.
Off to Mahesh wedding
Paes’ next destination is, of course, Mumbai where he will be attending Mahesh Bhupathi’s wedding.
“Yeah, I am going to Mahesh’s wedding tomorrow,” Paes said, rubbishing speculation that he would be boycotting the one-time good friend’s D-Day.
It will be a quiet affair at a Bandra hotel where only “members of both families and close associates” have been invited, according to Bhupathi senior. Obviously, the Paes’ still belong there.