In a perverse way, the lack of fuss over Leander Paes’ men’s doubles victory at Flushing Meadows on Sunday is testament to the massive scale of his achievements. This is a country that is starved of sporting success in the international arena. Every victory, no matter how minor, takes on mythic proportions in the media’s funhouse mirrors; heroes are created with breathless invention.
Yet, with this US Open victory, Paes has secured his 8th men’s doubles Grand Slam title and 14th overall to polite applause for the most part. There is a reason the reaction has been so blasé.
India is, by now, used to Paes winning; and when a Grand Slam victory is seen as business as usual, that says something about Paes’ place in the pantheon of Indian sporting greats.
In a country like India where cricket sucks up all the oxygen as far as public awareness of sports goes, this is all the more startling.
It has been a protracted journey reaching this point, stretching over two decades and more. When he won the Wimbledon Junior title in 1990 and claimed the top spot in the junior world rankings, great things were predicted. This level of success was rare but not unknown. It was what came next that was so unusual; until that point, the standard pattern had been early success followed by a failure to live up to expectations. Paes broke the mould.
His finest moment was perhaps the single bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 the first Indian to win an individual medal since 1952. But save for inspired victories against top drawer opponents when wearing Indian colours in the Davis Cup, his true legacy is in doubles tennis, not singles. He has won the men’s doubles title thrice each at the French Open and US Open, and once each at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, paired with six mixed doubles Grand Slam titles two Australian Opens, three Wimbledons, a French Open and a US Open.
This is a staggering record by any metric. And he has done it all with what Andre Agassi called “the fastest hands on the tour”, evincing an artistry that carries on the legacy of players like Vijay Amritraj, Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan. More importantly, he has gone far beyond the cliché of eastern artistry a romantic western concept that contained within itself graceful defeat as a necessary ingredient to show that deftness of touch does not preclude the will to win.
Doubles tennis doesn’t quite have the cachet or the glamour of its singles counterpart. That is unavoidable. But it is also, after that promise of Paes’ Wimbledon victory 23 years ago, largely irrelevant.
There have been troughs in his career, certainly injuries, illnesses, the spats with Mahesh Bhupathi but there is far more in the credit column, from his golden run with Bhupathi to his repeated success with legend Martina Navratilova and the respect of his fellow players on the tour. At the end of it, he is the oldest player in the Open era to win a men’s Grand Slam title and one of the finest sportsmen, not just tennis players, that the country has produced.