On a hot September day in 1995, Leander Paes stepped out on a grass court in New Delhi to play a big-serving, hard-hitting Croat. This was a World Group Round 1 Davis Cup tie, and he knew that for him to have any chance of beating world no. 7 Goran Ivanisevic, he’d have to go beyond the ordinary. So he decided to face those booming serves by standing at least three feet inside the baseline.
“(It 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,” Paes had told The Indian Express in 2017. “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.”
The tactic worked, as he’d go on to pull off a famous five-set win over one of the biggest names in the sport.
Just under 25 years later, on Saturday, Paes was on court in a doubles match with partner Rohan Bopanna, this time a World Group Qualifier on an indoor hard court at the Dom Sportova in Zagreb. The match was close to its conclusion, but still could have gone either way. Franko Skugor was serving at deuce, 5-6 in the final set of the contest. That’s when Paes decided he needed to come up with something extraordinary. He watched, eagle-eyed, as Skugor started his service routine, and found a tell. Once the ball toss came, the 46-year-old moved to his left, anticipating a body serve that he would convert onto a forehand – the side where he could produce a bigger return.
— Davis Cup (@DavisCup) March 7, 2020
That’s exactly how it panned out. The big Skugor serve came where Paes had been standing a moment earlier, and the veteran used the pace of the serve to slot back an angled return winner to give the Indians a match point chance. Skugor was rattled – he double-faulted the next point to hand the Indians a 6-3, 6-7(9), 7-5 win.
The Paes/Bopanna win over Skugor and Mate Pavic kept the visitors alive in the tie by giving them their first point, after Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ramkumar Ramanathan had lost their singles matches on Friday against Borna Gojo and Marin Cilic respectively.
With India trailing 1-2 in the tie, non-playing captain Rohit Rajpal decided to field India’s highest-ranked singles player Sumit Nagal (127), for his first match in the tie, against Cilic. The former world no. 3, however, cruised past the 22-year-old Indian 6-0, 6-1 to secure the tie 3-1 for Croatia.
Eventually, the doubles match proved to be the only positive result for the Indians in this tie.
Croatia’s Marin Cilic celebrate with team mates after winning the match against India’s Sumit Nagal. (Source: Reuters)But that too was a hard-fought win. And in the crucial moments, Paes, the world record holder for most doubles matches won in the Davis Cup (now 45), stepped up.
With India a break down in the third set, he engaged in a rally with Skugor. Always in charge of the point, the Indian hit a few volleys at the Croat, stretching the opponent before finishing the point with a forehand winner to give the Indians a third break point opportunity at 4-3. The next point, Paes poached a volley winner to level the score.
But it wasn’t just the 18-time Grand Slam champion (eight in men’s doubles and 10 in the mixed event) who was dictating terms for the Indians. Bopanna, a big-serving 40-year-old with elegant and powerful groundstrokes, was striking the ball well. The point before Paes played the forehand winner to set up a match point, Bopanna played a blistering one-handed backhand winner off Skugor’s first serve to take the game score to deuce.
It was a remarkable and impressive showing from the Indians. If the relationship between the duo has been acrimonious in the past, there was no hint of it when they took to the court. Instead, their performance brought back memories of a time when the Indian doubles team was a ruthless force on the tour – when Bopanna would launch a powerful serve and Paes, with his reflex volleys, would kill off the point at the net.
That camaraderie came to the fore to keep the Indians alive, even if the win was to be a mere consolation.
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