New Delhi: They say quitting is an art and not all realise when their time is up.
After a three-decade eventful ride, Leander Paes is mature enough to understand that, not even blinking an eye to say his time to ‘play for the flag’ is nearing its end.
This despite being good enough to stretch his own Davis Cup record of most doubles wins and the lure of lifting India into the Davis Cup finals with another underdog victory against two-time champs Croatia in India’s away tie on March 6-7, 2020.
Back in the blue colours of India after 18 months, Paes won his 44th doubles match, with yet another new partner (the count is well over 100 now), in debutant Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, helping India to a comprehensive 4-0 win over Pakistan.
Security concerns arising from the prospect of playing in Islamabad once raised the spectre of forfeiting the tie, but the trio of one-time Davis Cup teammates – Paes, non-playing for the tie Rohit Rajpal and coach Zeeshan Ali – volunteered to ensure a decent squad was assembled.
With qualification to the World group achieved, one would have thought this was the time for the patriot in Paes to motivate himself for more. So why quit?
Because “I’m not going to play for too much longer. In terms of what’s best for the team, I should not be playing past the next year. I should have been pushed out by the next generation by now,” the ‘ageless’ Paes said on Monday after returning to India earlier in the day.
“So to look at it objectively, what is important now is the health of the team, the need to nurture a younger set of players.”
When and how to bid adieu is still sketchy but 2020 could be his swansong year after debuting for the country in 1990.
“I’ve had a great 30 year stint in Davis Cup. I’ve lived my career playing for the country,” the 46-year reflected.
Paes got into the team after a host of pull-outs, including of doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna and non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi. His absence from the national team has led to an introspection.
“After next year, I am not so sure about that. I feel we need to nurture the next generation,” the 18-time Grand Slam winner said, but promising to be “the best I can be, when I’m called to play”.
He insisted his duty to his country and the unbearable thought of India getting relegated in the Davis Cup rungs for forfeiting the tie compelled him to agree to play in Islamabad.
“Had we forfeited the tie then for the next three to four years we would be relegated to a zonal group and would have to fight our way up,” the former World No. 1 said.
“None of us have put 30 years to see that happen. The last time that happened was in 1974 when India was to play South Africa.”
— ITF (@ITF_Tennis) October 17, 2019
“I would have definitely gone to Islamabad, I would have enjoyed going there to play for the country and winning.”
While shifting the tie to Nur-Sultan by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) ended security fears, it’s the freezing conditions of -31 ° Celsius in the Kazak city that was trickier for the Indians to overcome, not so much the opponents.
“Though we played indoors, the conditions were challenging. I never played in such cold conditions before,” the son of illustrious athletes, hockey star father Vece and basketball stalwart Jennifer, said.
Content with his achievements, Paes is now willing to see life off the court but not necessarily away from tennis, having bought a stake in Tennis Premier League’s (TPL) Mumbai Leon Army franchise.
“A dream of mine is to coach and train and nurture youngsters to win Olympic medals, to win Wimbledon,” the Rajiv Khel Ratna awardee said.
His mind might be bracing up for new pastures but physically he remains in top shape. A ‘fireball’ as Rajpal described, “the way he energises juniors, his tricks on the court”.
“With the new three set matches in Davis Cup, physically it is not that exhausting,” the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bronze medallist stated.
So what makes Paes still so valuable for India?
“Experience. Having played the amount of Davis Cup matches that he has played and won. No matter where we go and which team we play, all players, and they don’t have to be Indians, look up to him,” Ali said.
Experience is what India would require in abundance when India face Croatia in March. Paes knows a thing or two about beating the odds, memorably winning against Goran Ivanisevic in the last singles to help India edge Croatia 3-2 in 1995 in Delhi.
Will he be included in the team till to script another memorable victory for India, one last time? Stay tuned till March.