His reflexes are waning, the wow volleys are fewer than before and the doubles rubber of India’s Davis Cup tie is no longer guaranteed as it used to be in Leander Paes’ heyday. Pune 2017 lacked the verve of early 90s when his quick feet and quicker hands could weave magic. As the 43-year-old’s career hits the final stretch, Paes recounts to SHIVANI NAIK those times he scored stunners in Davis Cups.
The Scarlet Journal
1993 vs France World Group Quarterfinals. (Away)
Beat Henri Leconte 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
India won the tie 3-2 to enter the semifinals.
Frejus, south of France, it was the Davis Cup quarters. The French team was so highly ranked, they had two players in the Top 10. Arnaud Boetsch, Henri Leconte. Fabrice Santoro and Guy Forget were reserves. Can you imagine? Their reserves were higher ranked than us. So when you talk about rankings, seedings and all this nonsense in Davis Cup, it is what it is. And India had a lowly-ranked team, against such a loaded French team; away from home, on an alien court — on clay, French clay.
French clay is different from the greyish brown ‘Bujri’ we have here. They chop the brick to such a fine thing, it becomes a red powder and there’s two inches of that thrown on top of the hard clay surface. The sliding, ball popping and holding was so alien to us that after speaking to my captain Naresh Kumar, I took three months and hired a French coach Jacques Hervet who lived in Montpellier and Paris. So I travelled the tour from there, and lived with him for three months and learnt how to play on clay.
The first day of practice, he told me I had the wrong shoes, because clay court shoes had a herringbone design. When you slide forward or sideways, the clay gets stuck in the grooves – better grip. The hard court shoes are circular around the ball of the foot, and the rest is flat, so you slip, slide too much in hard court shoes. Some people used to play with grasscourt shoes on clay back then, and the pimples would grip the clay.
So clay is all about footing, gripping and also the power of your glutes and legs. Hence, Rafa Nadal.
The three months I took to do the homework, to learn how to play on clay, helped me so much.
The French team knew none of this. They only realised when the tie started because after Saturday night of the tie, they still thought they were 100 per cent winning. They were two matches to one up, and it was like ‘Indians don’t know how to play on clay, Ramesh is so old, Leander is so young, still hasn’t matured.’
When I beat Arnaud Boetsch in the fourth match on Sunday morning, they panicked. And that’s when Leconte switched around. He was supposed to play the fifth match, he didn’t. They put a young little leftie called Radolphe Gilbert. He hadn’t even played a tie, he was the fourth reserve on the team, he was not even supposed to play. But because Leconte was in such stress, they put him in, and this guy lost in five sets to Ramesh.
The unique thing, though, was my shoes. Coach said I had the wrong shoes, so we went shopping for the right ones, we got clay court shoes. Hervet took a sharp knife and taught me how to cut grooves of the herringbone clay shoes.
So he explained to me the concept of clay. It’s how you learn about a good French wine, or good French cheese, he taught me about French clay.
Exactly the nuances of what it took to be a good clay court player – it’s not just about forehands and backhands, it’s about the right equipment, the right thinking. He taught me how to play chess, I played a lot of chess. About how you set up moves, thinking four moves in advance, because you can’t put the ball away fast on clay. How you put the ball away when it comes back slow, but if it comes back fast how you put it behind the opponent’s back. So you are creating unforced errors, creating strategy – in power, drop shots, lobs, serve-and-volley or kick service.
That tie was special, because I developed a strategy realising I couldn’t defeat clay court players moving side to side on the baseline. My speed is forward and back. So by taking them out of their comfort zone by playing serve-and-volley tennis, or after two shots hitting a drop shot which, when perfected, went high over the net when you gave it clearance but added spin. Because if you hit the drop shot low over the net, it bounces and goes close to the opponent.
But when hit high – watch Federer when he hits it high, so Wawrinka ended in the net. And even if he didn’t touch the net and got the ball back, he’s dead, because your momentum is close to the net. So the lobs become a weapon. The drop shot becomes an offensive shot, rather than the defensive shot it’s considered by people. A little acceleration jhatka gives the ball aggressiveness with topspin, so it becomes an offensive shot. So after you play the drop shot, the jhatka lob gives it an offensive quality.
I ended up learning new shots that most clay courters wouldn’t play – they are playing conventional: forehand, backhand, down the line, long line, cross court, angled, short court. That tie, I beat Henri Leconte by playing drop shots and lobs, drop shots and lobs, serving and volleying, serving and volleying. So, one, I didn’t give him time to get rhythm, because longer the rally, more the rhythm. Agassi used to be best at that – shorter the rally, faster the point, which meant Leconte had to now play to my strength, which is speed, agility, serve-and-volley and drop shot.
Why am I playing your game? No one says how you have to play a match. You play it on your own terms, so you devise a mental strategy after you’ve got your legs, your muscles, your equipment, your racquets and shoes, your everything, right.
Run. Go. Ran.
1995 Vs Croatia. World Group Round 1.
Beat Goran Ivanisevic 6-7, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-1.
India won 3-2.
Ivanisevic at NSCI stadium. He’s just come off an amazing run at Wimbledon. I knew I had to win both my singles and the doubles. Othwerwise we weren’t gonna win. That was to qualify for the World Group again. Big stage. Sasha Hirszon, their No. 2 player, I could’ve taken care of easily. I wasn’t worried about him. But the doubles was going to be very important and I needed to put in a lot of effort into doubles. Mahesh and I were still building our team. Sunday morning, we were up two matches to one. I’d beaten Hirszon on the first day, Hesh got hammered by Goran, then we somehow won the doubles against Goran and Hirszon. When he came back on Sunday morning, Goran told me: “You’re done. I’m gonna win my match. And your fifth match, you have no chance.” I said that’s good mathematics. We went to play.
I knew the guy was playing at the peak of his form. He’d done unbelievable at that Wimbledon. We were playing on grass, and thanks to them for choosing a grass court to start with, uneven grass court at Delhi’s NSCI. Fast as lightning. Fantastic court. In an ideal world, that would’ve been a perfect court for me. And as history played out, it was the perfect court for me.
But to play that slingshot of a serve was ridiculous. I played wearing a hockey cup! I had to play really up close front. Because the further you go back, that slingshot, the angles get pulled out. If I went further back from the baseline, he would swing me down the T on the deuce side, and swing me wide on the ad side. So if I was lunging and just putting the ball back or just getting the ball back, it was an easy put-away for him.
His serve was so fast that I figured even if I go fast, he would just go bodyline each time. Smack right into my body as a leftie. So I had to neutralise the serve – I decided to cut the angles off, by standing close; three feet inside the baseline which was unheard of. I just had to get my racquet on the ball, because the ball was coming so fast that if I touched it, his power would ricochet back. And it would go faster to him. So I first used his pace just to get good contact to get the ball back and then I played him on speed again.
If I’d stood back, by the time the ball came to me and went back to him I’d have given him three steps back which meant the equivalent of six. So by cutting three steps to my forward, I gave him six steps less. But my eye-hand coordination had to really work if I had to catch that serve – see where it’s coming, read the toss, read the body language, read the legs where the angles are going and come back and use the speed of the serve because the minute I use that pace to get it back, he was hitting half volleys behind the service line. I’d reversed the game again, I’d played it on my terms, even on his strength.
The first set he was too good for me, in the second, he was still fresh and still too good for me. The third set, at some point, I was down 30-40, a break and I somehow came back and won that game, and at the end of the third, I saw he was tired. Because in the beginning of the match, even if I had an easy volley, I would put it away from him, I would push him to the corners.
It was very hot in Delhi – September — very hot. Like a boxer, those volleys were body blows – if you can’t punch the guy once to put him down, you keep hitting his body, until the body just gets tired. That was an old Muhammad Ali trick, the rope-a-dope. It worked. It was nice.
The Goran match took me three months to recover. It took Goran four-and-a-half months to recover from. Till today he tells me, till the Australian Open – I played him in September – he didn’t feel good.
Chicken Biryani for Soul
1990 vs Japan. Group 1 Quarterfinals.
Partnering Zeeshan Ali beat Shuzo Matsuoka / Shizero Ota 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 18-16.
India won 4-1.
My very first match with Zeeshan Ali. 18-16 in the fifth. Five hours 28 minutes. We were 2-5 down in the fifth. It went from 5-all, to 6-all, 7-all, 8-all, 9-all, 10-all, at 11-all. At 11-12, I was very hungry, ya. I said ‘Zee, I’m really hungry and getting calf cramps also’. My hitting thumb was hurting. I was 15-years-old, ya.
So he asked ‘what do you wanna eat?’ I said chicken biryani. He said, ‘bloody idiot, you are playing a match! Just have a banana, have some fruit or bread.’ I said chicken biryani, I’m very hungry.
We come out at 11-12, and he tells Naresh Sir, ‘see what this boy’s saying: he wants chicken biryani’. So, Uncle Naresh says, ‘Biryani, haan? You win this game, I’ll give you biryani. You don’t win this game, you’re done, you’ll never play ever again’. I said, ‘Sir I’m very hungry’. He said ‘have a banana, your biryani will come in two games’. He called out, got chicken biryani. I remember I was eating it with a spoon but couldn’t cut the chicken with the spoon, and I didn’t want to pick the chicken because of the oil.
So we had that biryani under the table so no one could see it. So we had bananas on top, bread on top and biryani under. Zeeshan didn’t eat. He was a professional, not like me. He was not as mad as I am.
Oh, we won.
Delhi skins alive
1991 vs Korea Group 1 Asia/Oceania Semifinal
Beat Seung-Ho Ji 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 in Rubber 5.
India won 3-2.
Against Korea. In May. In Delhi. On old grass courts in Delhi. For 15-odd years, I had to play all three days. And again I had to play singles, doubles, singles. So I went into the fifth match exhausted.
It was May. Bloody hot. You know, in Delhi you get that loo. So my cheeks were bleeding already. And my wristbands were full of blood. Because you are rubbing the sweat. But I didn’t realise that the sand was getting caught in the material of the wrist band. So every time I rubbed my face, I was scraping and I cut below both my eyes with the sharp wristband. At some point, I looked at my wrist band and said what’s wrong with my nose? My dad said ‘no, you are bleeding from the cheeks’. So I take Vaseline and put it on my cheeks. And I switch my wristbands and it was so hot that the soles of my feet had blisters.
I was exhausted, and the Koreans are tough. They are physically just ripped, and I was thinking ‘how the hell am I gonna do this’. And then, I said ‘no matter what happens, just hold my serve to 4-all, 5-all’. At 5-all, I put in a little effort into the return game. Until 4-all, I wasn’t putting effort into the return game. In the service game, I was putting in all effort to ensure I didn’t lose my serve. But because their groundstrokes were so good, I figured why would I push from the beginning and lose energy?
I’d just hold my serve till 4-all, 5-all. At 5- all when the pressure was there, I would chip and charge, put in extra pressure and put in extra effort, cover the lobs and groundstrokes – those Koreans had great passing shots. And get a break. I won that match in three sets, and in that third set, I was literally running on fumes. The Delhi crowd was just pushing me forward.
Earlier, in 1991, we’d lost to them on clay playing away. The court was so red, they’d put petrol on the court and lit it to flames to burn the clay. And then the whole place was smelling of petrol, so they got a helicopter in to take the fumes out.