September 9, 2008 1:13:17 am
When Leander Paes won the mixed doubles crown at the US Open a few nights back, my thoughts went back to 1983, when I saw a 10-year old boy hammering the ball real hard on the Dalhousie Institute tennis courts at Park Circus in Calcutta. The kid was none other than Leander and my sports journalist guru David McMahon had remarked then, “Mark my words, this kid is going to go places…” The confidence that the 10-year-old Leander possessed had to be seen to be believed. Sweat dripping from his brow, he shook hands with every journalist in our group and said, “Good evening, sirs. Have a nice day!” We certainly had a great time watching him wallop the ball that lovely evening.
Years later, I had the opportunity to see an improved version of the same Leander. It was the winter of 1989, I think, when I had gone to the Britannia Amritraj Tennis (BAT) academy in Chennai to do a story. Over cups of fresh, filter coffee, Indian tennis icon Vijay Amritraj could not stop talking about his star student: Leander Paes.
Paes, then only 16, was whacking the ball equally hard on BAT’s Harrington Road tennis courts. “Good morning, sir. We met at the Dalhousie Institute, did you say?! Gee, well, that’s great!” Leander said, as he gave me a firm handshake and his trademark, toothy grin, before running off to the courts for yet another gruelling session with coach Dave O’Meara. I remember Amritraj saying, “Leander is extremely tenacious, hard- working, determined and athletic… all the qualities that make a champion. I have no doubt that he will make a great tennis champion.” The words proved prophetic.
Born to international athletes, father Vece Paes, Olympic hockey bronze medallist and mother Jennifer, former India basketball captain, Paes has athleticism running in his veins. After he won his first Olympic bronze in Atlanta, US, he said, “I can now see my father eye to eye. We both own Olympic medals!” Leander must be 35 today, but don’t write him off as yet. The tricolour looks good in his hand and heart.
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