Naresh Kumar and Leander Paes — two very special names in Indian tennis bound by a very special bond. The years between them melted whenever Leander met his “Naresh Uncle”. And his father, hockey Olympian Dr Vece Paes, had a ringside view of this very special relationship developing over the years between his son and his “good friend Naresh”.
Kumar passed away at the age of 93 on Wednesday. “Calcutta is a place where you make friends for life. Leander was just about five or six years old when he started training under Anwar Ali (Akhtar Ali’s brother) at South Club,” Dr Paes told The Telegraph from Goa, where he is spending time with his daughter Jacqueline Christina Paes.
“And almost every other day, Naresh would be there watching the kids. I think he spotted something special in Leander and grew very fond of him. Leander, on the other hand, realised Naresh was a rather important person and grew to respect him.”
And soon ‘Naresh Uncle’ became a part of the circle of friends and family who helped build his career. That early bonding grew stronger as Leander developed as a player. “When Leander won the Junior Wimbledon singles title in 1990, that is when Naresh started taking special interest in him. He told me what aspects of Leander’s game needed to improve. They started communicating and he often gave him tips and guidance,” Dr Paes said.
In 1990, Kumar, then the captain, insisted on including the 16-year-old from Calcutta in the India Davis Cup team against Japan. Leander caught the imagination of tennis aficionados almost immediately. Kumar had shared his feelings about that tie with The Telegraph after Leander had announced his farewell year in 2019. “Leander had reached Chandigarh by train to join the Davis Cup squad as the fourth player,” Kumar had recalled.
“He had a bit of a swag even then. He was fearless when he played. He jumped straightway into the fray.” Leander had teamed up with Zeeshan Ali to win the doubles in a marathon match that sealed the tie for India.
“Paes is a natural athlete. But that is not enough. His attitude and fearlessness are inherent. I always knew that at crucial moments this fellow would do something special,” Kumar had said.
“Leander played a number of Davis Cup ties with Naresh as his captain and they soon became friends, the age gap not coming between them. Even when Leander had become the world No.1 and a big star, he would take advice from Naresh,” said Dr Paes.
“I have seen how warm their relationship had been. Naresh’s death will leave a huge void in all our lives,” he added.