Calcutta: Davis Cup and Leander Paes. If there has been a sweeter tennis romance in recent times, few have heard of it.
It all started 14 summers ago in Chandigarh, thanks to then-captain Naresh Kumar’s insistence that the bubbly 16-year-old boy from his city — and not Rohit Rajpal who had the blessings of All India Tennis Association bigwigs — will pair up with Zeeshan Ali.
The chemistry was established immediately. Very soon, Paes was playing singles as well. And in his fourth year in the team, the junior Wimbledon champion emerged as the No. 1 Indian player with an ageing Ramesh Krishnan dropping on the rankings ladder.
Once Ramesh quit after the semi-final rout at the hands of Australia, Paes was elevated to the status of the senior pro in 1994 a few months after he had celebrated his 20th birthday. For almost 10 years now, he has carried the mantle with elan, often lifting his game a few notches to fetch India amazing victories.
Doesn’t Paes’ ability to script incredible performances in the Davis Cup amaze him, Ramesh was asked recently. “Well, if I hadn’t seen those matches from close quarters so many times, I would have been amazed,” replied the current India captain.
This weekend’s 4-1 rout of New Zealand at South Club included a familiar three-win contribution from Paes, though it was a routine exercise considering the quality of opposition. The Olympic bronze-medallist, who has a week off before resuming his quest for titles with David Rikl at the Monte Carlo Open, chose his top five Davis Cup matches for The Telegraph before leaving for Mumbai Monday.
“Top of the heap has to be the win over Arnaud Boetsch 10 years ago in Frejus,” Paes said, going down memory lane. “It seems just the other day… time really flies.”
There have obviously been more highs, but Paes had a few forgettable moments in Davis Cup as well. “Yeah, I remember all those days which gave me no joy but let’s not spoil the moment reminiscing on those,” he remarked.
Here goes Paes’ top five Cup matches (in order of merit) with his reasons:
Beat Arnaud Boetsch (France) 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 in Frejus, July 1993: “We were playing on a slow claycourt in conditions pretty much alien to us. Arnaud was one of the top claycourters at that time with a ranking in the top 20. Beating him in straight sets was very satisfying. I used the chip-and-charge throughout the match and that flustered him. Don’t think he ever played somebody who used that tactic so much on a claycourt. Ramesh and I had lost the doubles and we were down 1-2. I had to win that match to give Ramesh a shot at winning the decisive fifth rubber.”
Beat Goran Ivanisevic (Croatia) 6-7, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-1 in Delhi, 1995: “We were playing on grass and he is a master on that surface having featured in two Wimbledon finals. He missed a lot of first serves but it was still a huge weapon. Despite keeping things tight, I lost the first two sets. In the third, I was down 0-3, 0-40. Turning it around from that stage to win 6-1 in the fifth was one hell of a mental and physical effort. I had already played two matches in that tie, including four sets of doubles the previous afternoon. That wasn’t easy in the scorching heat of Delhi. Goran was very exhausted in the end but so was I.”
Beat Henri Leconte (France) 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in Frejus, 1993: “He was a very passionate player who thrived in Davis Cup conditions. He had loads of experience as well, having been part of the winning team twice. He had the big crowd rooting for him that afternoon after Boetsch had beaten Ramesh in the first rubber. I was very aggressive from the start and by the time I took a two-sets-to-love lead, the crowd was appreciating my tennis. It was much easier from that stage, though Leconte took the third set.
Beat Wayne Ferreira (South Africa) 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 in Jaipur, 1994: “A very accomplished player on fast surfaces, Wayne had a solid serve-and-volley game. Though he hadn’t won any major title, he was very consistent and his ranking hovered around the 10-15 mark. Beating a player of his calibre in straight sets was one of my best victories on grass. I played a near-perfect match that day and gave him very few opportunities to get a foothold.”
(With Zeeshan Ali) beat Shuzo Matsuoka & S. Ota (Japan) 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 18-16 in Chandigarh, 1990: “It was my first tie and I was chosen to play doubles with Zeeshan. I was all nerves to start with but settled down quite soon. For a first-time pairing, we combined quite well. Having blown a two-sets-to-one lead, we were down 2-5 in the fifth. The crowd gave up on us but the two of us managed to pump each other up with vociferous support from the captain and teammates. The marathon set swung one way and the other before we clinched it 18-16. We had been out on court for over four hours and a quarter… I couldn’t have dreamt of a more exciting and eventful debut.”