There is a tradition the Indian Davis Cup team has followed, with great vigour, over the last decade or two. A celebration – the chest-bump – was a must and one of the most endearing images upon a doubles win.
On Saturday, that tradition was ignored. As Rohan Bopanna rained down a service winner to earn India a 5-7, 7-6, 7-6 win in the doubles rubber against China, in the second round of the zonal Davis Cup tie, there was no spirited rush to his partner Leander Paes for the trademark chest-bump.
Instead, the towering Coorgi calmly hugged and whispered words of congratulations to Paes. As the duo moved over to the bench, the 44-year-old was warmly embraced by his former partner and current team captain Mahesh Bhupathi.
The occasion called for such a change in the festivities, for Paes had broken the 46-year-old record of Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli, by winning his 43rd Davis Cup doubles match.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey over the last 29 years, when I played my first Davis Cup match with Zeeshan Ali in 1990,” says Paes. “I must dedicate this world record to my parents, my daughter Aiyana, to every Davis Cup captain and partner that I’ve had. This was for all of India.”
Three of his most prominent partners were there with him, at the Tianjin Tennis Center. Ali, the current coach of the Indian team was Paes’ first ever partner when India hosted Japan in Chandigarh.
“That first tie went on for five-hours-28-minutes, and we won 18-16 in the final set,” Paes recalls. “That kind of prepared me for the journey. For about 18 of the 29 years, I’ve had to play singles and doubles right through.”
That tie came years before he would win his 18 Grand Slam titles (eight in men’s doubles and 10 in mixed doubles), and before he would reach the world No 1 rank along with Mahesh Bhupathi, the current team captain.
It was with Bhupathi in fact, that Paes created another Davis Cup record of winning 24 consecutive doubles matches (the final tally stands at 25-2).
“It’s finally happened,” says Bhupathi. “It was always inevitable that it would happen. So now an Indian holding the record is very special for our sport especially since, I believe, this record will stay for a long time.”
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In time, the relationship between the two grew sour. Last year, at the zonal tie against Uzbekistan in Bangalore, tensions flared as Paes was dropped from the Indian team on form for the first time in 27 years.
Yet for the tricky tie against China, which India needed to win to make it to a fifth consecutive World Group Playoff, Bhupathi had the most experienced and decorated campaigner in his squad. And he needed the experience of both Paes and Bopanna to lead the comeback, as the visitors had slumped to a dangerous 2-0 deficit on the first day.
Focus on work
For all the animosity that might have boiled in the past between Paes and Bopanna, the pair worked well to slug out in the come-from-behind win, just as they had done four years ago against Serbia.
“We were down two sets and a break in the third, and still managed to come back and win that match,” Paes remembers. “A big thanks to Rohan, for believing in the team and going for his shots. We’ve had two big wins. One against Serbia, and the one today.”
They still had to do it the hard way, especially when Paes was serving at 5-6 in the third set, trailing 0-30. But the pair managed to put on four good points to ensure the tie-breaker.
“For me it’s about doing the right things at the right time, putting in a good serve and backing it up with a volley,” he adds. “With the experience that I’ve had, the conditions that I’ve played in over the years, sometimes it’s just mind over matter.”
After the doubles point, Ramkumar Ramanathan made it 2-2 before Prajnesh Gunneswaran secured the tie for India.
On Saturday, Paes played his 126th Davis Cup match (singles and doubles) in his 57th tie. The tally includes 48 singles wins in 70 matches, and now a world record 43 of 56 doubles triumphs.
It all started in February, 1990, when he secretly hogged on chicken biryani during changeovers. In China, on Saturday, the entire team will feast to celebrate the win, and Paes.