He has this habit of calling a shot the moment it leaves his opponent’s hands. Leander Paes does it because adrenaline courses up like bus drivers do on Brazilian motorways in his veins, but it also has the impact of rattling his opponents when he yells ‘Out’ in the middle of the whizzing exchange of his shots.
On what could be potentially his last day on a stupendous 24-year Olympic journey, he continued to call on the shots.
Except there were very few as M Matkowski and L Kubot sprayed out, even as the curtains threatened to start tugging to eventually fall.
The man who revived India’s appetite for Olympic medals with a bronze in singles at Atlanta, will perhaps go medal-less in doubles — his bread, butter and place of belief and worship as it were. It’s been a checkered career, with nothing less than chess-like intrigue as the master moved his pieces and got check-mated himself too along the road.
Losing 4-6, 6-7 in front of a packed house in the cornerest of playing courts at Rio wouldn’t be the best parting memory for Paes, the self-professed Olympian exemplar. But that’s how the punches roll — he would say repeatedly as the Poles, old foes who respect and fear him equally, came to the court battling to go far and after a tough first set prevailed in the crucial moments, backing themselves when they were down.
Paes’ energy means he will never be short on effort on court, but at 43 he is a serious senior in international tennis. He has that thick mop of hair and the calves are still taut, but Paes is a considerably slower man than he was at Athens — the closest he came to a medal in doubles.
Intrigue before match
But moreover, intrigue preceded and followed him in his wake — when it was reported he’d reached Rio late and hardly had a hit with partner Bopanna with whom he shares a strained equation — their baggage like some dark Santa’s overflowing sack. “It’s not true that I didn’t want to stay with Rohan in the same apartment. And I’m a soft target for people to take personal shots,” he would later declare, even agreeing to stay on in Rio and help Bopanna-Mirza out with their mixed campaign. “They have a good chance, and just because I’m not playing doesn’t mean I’ll be bitter. I’m above all that,” he would add.
It’s tragic that India’s finest doubles player with all those Grand Slams and 7 Olympics needs to reel out the justifications. But to quote him, “that’s how the punches have rolled”.
London was the depths of India’s tennis conundrum, and Beijing over brewed, until the coffee smelt of char. But it will be Athens, Athens always lending itself to the Greek tragedy cliché, that will remain the enduring regret of Indian tennis for years to come. “Match point. 10-11 in the 3rd. Ancic serving, Mahesh brilliant forehand. The exact shot I’d practised a million times — fake and hit, fake and hit (replaying it for the media). Topspin volley, rattled over and and I couldn’t call it In or Out. It fell right on the line,” he would whiz on.
Ask him if it’s a regret nursed or blanked out — though with that much detail committed to his memory, it’s a non-answer. “Oh, I’ve shut it out,” he would say, contradicting the animation and description of a few moments ago.
The cabinet remains incomplete for the flag-man. It’s believed that he has a couple of years of sponsorship commitments with the Washington Kastles and then the body might finally rattle off like the Terminator’s did end of one of those Part 2 or 1.
He knows people find it boring to listen to his flag-talk. But he tries to show goosebumps on his hand in 38 degree steaming Rio sun — a sunburn spreading on his skin fast. He walked the opening ceremony last night, and tried playing sharp on court. Bopanna’s serve in fact came under pressure — he was broken thrice, and in the end volleyed one wide. “We don’t know if we’ll be around in Japan,” Paes would say. Bopanna’s 36 too, when you think of it.
Though the Poles — those scourges for Indian sport, though this time the rotund Matowski played real swell and sharp — ended up paying Leander Paes a tribute that could have come from one of his many doubles partners.
“7 Olympics sums up everything. He’s still very dangerous and we came prepared and are happy to beat a high profile pair,” Matowski would say. “It’s Leander you know, we might see him again in Tokyo,” he guffawed.
But for all intents and purposes this is the last we might have seen of Leander Paes at Olympics. Corner Court 5, calling his opponents’ mistakes, uneasy relationships with his own partners.
Maybe getting along well with a partner is the only skill that didn’t get ticked for him in India. “Maybe Martina Hingis and me will pal for some state (she doesn’t have a partner),” he would joke and fade off.
Leander Paes. Singles bronze, Atlanta. Doubles -an iron curtain blocking his path a seven times Barcelona through Rio, with mini heartbreaks at Sydney, Beijing and the open-heart wound at Athena.