Speed was the cornerstone of their games, as Vishwanathan Anand, Leander Paes and Sardar Singh dazzled across three of India’s most loved sports. But as years began chipping away at their blitzy instincts, even a miniscule slowing down started casting long shadows. The Indian Express looks at three end-games being tweaked and chiselled, that are defying age and refusing to go gently into the night.
The last doubles Grand Slam came in the fall of 2013, and mixed doubles last summer at the French Open. Rankings might have slipped, and Day 2 of the Davis Cup ain’t looking as assured as it used to till a few seasons ago. The glorious autumnal leaves on the giant oak are shedding away. The debate tends to hinge on rankings (he sunk to 72 and is No.56 now) — to determine if Leander Paes can be a shoo-in into any India spot — and this last year the number hasn’t been too kind to Indian tennis’ biggest contemporary hero. Off-court tangles — hugely polarised in media and amongst tennis fans — tend to distract from objectively analysing if Paes can win himself and his country more matches like he once used to so regally and passionately.
But there’s a heartbreaking truth behind the selection and camps and politicking: Indians were so accustomed to watching a sprightly, pugnacious player man the net to rule the court when he went from early 20s to late 20s (6 Slams), and roared from early 30s to late 30s (8) and picked 4 more with chortles in Mixed over 2015-16 when he was into his 40s, that this upcoming final stretch can’t humanly match up to what we’ve seen of the great pouncer of early days.
More than ever before, though, the big small bloke of tennis who was so little he couldn’t hit two balls over the net as a young teen, is frantically trying at 43.
Pune last month was riddled with so much of the usual drama over the personnel – that two assessments were missed: Paes had gotten fitter than last year but his game has slowed a tad bit – legs slower, body didn’t turn and twist as easily. But such has been his consistency that the howlers that would leap at you were shrugged aside.
Vishnu Vardhan, serving to save a break point served wide to Michael Venus, who only managed a lobbed return. But it lacked much height and would have been easily killed off by Paes, on any earlier day. But not that Saturday when India went down to the higher-ranked Kiwis. Paes back-peddled to get into position, leapt too.
All that was required was him to smash home his forehand volley. He inexplicably let the ball go. It landed a good few feet inside the baseline to give the Kiwis a break of serve in the fourth set. A few others went into the net. His stomping ground was getting tough to rule that day.
Paes has never shied away from these challenges. From heading to Jim Loehr to get positive about his backhand in 1992 to shoring up a presentable and quite canny serve, Paes has gobbled up gyaan wherever he went and patched up a champion game. Now, though, he’s banking on the remainder of reflexes and anticipation skills to keep him in play.
“He picks 3-4 new skills every year,” says father Vece Paes, who noted the combative instinct honed out of playing football and rugby and swimming and cycling, and who identified the preponderance of fast twitch fibres that have shaped his game. Paes, owing to his high sweat rate of 2.5 litres/hr, needed to wrap up in three sets, because going into 4th and 5th, he would lose a litre an hour and start cramping away. He kept bagging new tricks, though.
He played with Stan Wawrinka this last year and from the Swiss came the inspiration to hit the backhand with full extension – with follow through above the head. “Courts are slower, balls heavier, so you can just hammer that stroke now,” Paes Sr explains.
His chipped return too isn’t as dinky as before – and Paes tends to stab at the ball with a short backswing. There are a few more variations – he unfurled one in Pune and got almost a standing ovation – before it all went downhill.
“His reflexes are not the same, but he makes up by anticipation and skills and new strokes,” Dr Paes says. He’d learnt how to hit over a backhand – since the top players returned with top spin to his backhand to push him away from the net – and though it took him 2-3 years, the intent to learn burnt ablaze.
In the last 5-8 years, Paes has also settled into a high percentage serve game – pinning them to the corners. Hitting a few aces, the new older Paes boasts a better second serve percentage.
It’ll boil down to the cerebral muscle to pull him through this last flung challenge. “His mentality has always been his strongest point. It has never gone down. He would always bounce back,” says coach Zeeshan Ali who reckons that despite advancing years, Paes has kept himself in good shape and still depends on his good legs. “His movement is a step slower. He knows what he cannot do, and knows what he can.”
The unsettling thought, though, is that only wins can paper over the stuttering slowness – unthinkable in Leander Paes.