Mahesh Bhupathi belled the cat and dropped Davis Cup veteran Leander Paes from the team to play Uzbekistan for the first time since 1990. But if you’ve hung around Indian tennis long enough, you know you announce the end of the road for Paes at your own peril. The 43-year-old has gone to a staggering seven Olympics. And considering Indian sporting giants’ tendency to drag their feet when moving towards the exit door, with officials indulging them, an 8th can’t be ruled out. For most of the last decade, there has been intermittent questioning of Paes’s selection and he has repeatedly defied doomsayers. One look at the Davis Cup squad and you know India doesn’t have an assembly line of world-class champs. No one, not even Rohan Bopanna, has a Grand Slam doubles title. This is what keeps Paes in contention for a spot at all times. Also, Paes and Bhupathi’s friendship, and enmity, are fickle.
However, Indian tennis is fatigued by this pair of squabbling fourty somethings. Their darts still amuse but enthuse little given that India struggles to even enter the Top 16 elite World Group of the Davis Cup. India’s made it to three finals in the past — pre-Lee-Hesh days, so enough of this saga already. And it’s time to allow fresher legs a sniff at the running around of the baseline and poaching of the net — and to look beyond Paes.
Paes and his legion of diehards will remain unyielding, and it is an athlete’s job to back himself against dire odds. Perhaps his greatest act for the nation is still to come. He has the skills and the Slams like no other. So, if he can turn into a mentor and mould a few young boys and girls, teaching them to dazzle on the court, he will do for tennis what Pullela Gopichand — another man unsatiated by Olympic success — did for badminton. Churning out champs might well be his greatest legacy.