| Leander Paes with the Tricolour after winning the deciding match against Pakistan as Mahesh Bhupathi looks on in Mumbai on Sunday. (AFP)
Mumbai: Leander Paes braved a severe bout of cramps in sweltering conditions to pull off an incredible five-set victory over Pakistan’s Aqeel Khan in the deciding reverse singles to pilot India to a thrilling 3-2 victory in the Asia-Oceania Zone group I play-off tie on Sunday.
The 33-year-old Indian captain, hero of many a cup campaign against stronger teams in the past, took a gamble and played the fifth rubber of the tie in place of his younger teammate Rohan Bopanna to carve out a memorable 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 0-6, 6-1 victory in three hours and 40 minutes at the Cricket Club of India lawns.
The win helped India remain in group I while Pakistan will play China in the relegation play-off in September.
The loser of that tie would be demoted to group II next year.
Paes, going into the deciding tie after India No. 1 Prakash Amritraj had been beaten by his Pakistani counterpart Aisam Qureshi in four sets ' 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 ' was up by two sets with his inimitable serve-volley play before he suffered a severe bout of cramps.
The affliction occurred when the score was 1-1 in the third set and Paes looked severely restricted in his movements after receiving on-court medical attention.
He had clinched the first two sets comfortably with the help of a single break of service in the first and via the tie-break 7-4 after leading 4-0 in the second.
The Indian skipper lost the third set after being broken once in the fourth game by his rival and was mostly rooted to his spot in the fourth and tried to conserve his energy after falling 0-4 behind.
Paes gave away the last two games of the set, a wise move, in order to go all out against his rival in the fifth set which he did with aplomb and carved out his 47th singles victory in his illustrious Cup career.
The veteran stormed his way in the deciding set with his passing shots and volleys to stun his younger rival into submission by breaking his opponent’s serve twice ' in the second and sixth games ' before serving out the set, the match and the tie when Khan hit a backhand return wide.
Paes, playing in Cup singles after a long gap, went down on his haunches even as his teammates rushed to congratulate him after the triumph.
Earlier, Qureshi fired in 21 aces against the hapless Amritraj to bring Pakistan level in the tie at 2-2.
Qureshi took on-court medical attention for cramps but quelled a strong fight-back from his prodigal Indian rival, who committed as many as 12 double faults, to carve out a convincing 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory in two hours and 35 minutes.
Paes started off well keeping his serves against khan with ease in the first game and effected the decisive break in the tenth game to clinch the first set 6-4 in 39 minutes.
Khan broke Paes in the seventh game to lead 4-3 but Paes immediately broke back to restore parity with the set moving to tie-breaker.But Paes’ gamble of playing the deciding singles of the tie nearly came unstuck when the heat and humidity, and the 65-minute long second set took its toll on him in the third.
With Paes losing his speed and rhythm after suffering cramps, Khan broke him in the fourth game and won the set 6-3 in 40 minutes.
The fourth set was a cakewalk for the Pakistani as he breezed through it in only 20 minute by breaking Paes thrice at will as the wily Indian decided not to try too hard and preserve his energy for the deciding fifth set.
It was a move that benefited Paes as he was ready with all his firepower and roared back into the deciding set in style. (PTI)