| Paes and Martina on their way to the final. (Reuters)
Calcutta, Jan. 30: We’ve heard of Lance Armstrong defeating cancer to win the Tour de France cycling championship. Come Sunday, our very own Leander Adrian Paes could walk into that exclusive club of super-heroes who have overcome potentially career-ruining health hazards to reach the pinnacle of sport.
Leander and Martina Navratilova are still a win away from retaining their Australian Open mixed doubles trophy. But, as the Beckbagan boy observed from Melbourne after the 6-4, 6-4 semi-final win over Jonathan Erlich and Liezel Huber, he already feels it’s like “magic” and “a dream come true”.
None can blame Leander for being in the seventh heaven. Returning to competitive tennis after a five-month hiatus caused by a brain lesion, the Olympic bronze-medallist had no idea what to expect.
“To just be in Melbourne was a long shot five months ago… tennis was the last thing on my mind then and I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to play again,” Leander told The Telegraph from his Melbourne hotel on Friday evening. “But here I am in the final and to be doing it with Martina is extra special.”
Having done the near-impossible, Leander now finds it incredibly simple. “I don’t feel like I missed a heartbeat… My form now is as good as last year, if not a touch better. The body has recovered well, I’ve shed the extra 42 lbs and I am really hungry… I’m so refreshed mentally, I feel I can go on playing for quite a few more years.”
It was about 10 weeks ago, “the day medication stopped”, that Leander resumed fitness training. First, a weeklong stint in South Africa with golfer Ernie Els, with whom he shares an American fitness trainer. Then a prolonged back-breaking spell at his Orlando base.
“You know I still can’t believe I started hitting a tennis ball only about 10 days before the Australian Open began… Just goes to show what you can achieve with perseverance, determination and single-mindedness,” Leander said.
The ‘feat’ of advancing to a Grand Slam final straight after coming off a long break has overwhelmed him like never before. Achievements like the Olympic bronze medal, a myriad of Davis Cup upsets and the conquest of Pete Sampras seem to have paled in comparison.
“This is my way of saying thank you to Martina, my parents, my friends and 1.2 billion people who stood by me so steadfastly in my hour of crisis.”
The mention of Martina brought out an array of compliments. “The way she encouraged me is not funny… for instance, Martina said at the start of the Melbourne fortnight, ‘you were out for only five months, I had to come back after five years, you can do it’.”
Martina paid Paes a compliment in typical style. “His intensity is there… he wants it,” said the American legend who is chasing her third Grand Slam mixed doubles title with Paes. “He’s got a big heart.”
Among the decent crowd that had gathered at the Rod Laver Arena to watch a courageous man at work were Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri. TV commentary would keep them engaged on Sunday, so the ex-players-turned-commentators took the chance to attend the semi-final at least.
‘Sunny’ has been an unabashed fan of the tennis patriot for years, Shastri is a big admirer as well.
The unseeded Nenad Zimonjic and Elena Bovina stand as the final obstacles. “Right now, we are playing like two kids in a candy store… Martina and I will surely be going for the kill on Sunday, but we’ll actually be trying to put the icing on the cake,” was how the 30-year-old former doubles world No. 1 summed up his thoughts on Sunday’s big match.
A big match indeed. Not just India, the whole world will be focused on Melbourne Park’s Centre Court on Sunday afternoon to check out if an amazing story gets a fairytale ending.
With inputs from Reuters in Melbourne