Another year of Davis Cup has begun, and once again India progressed into the World Group Playoffs, beating Uzbekistan with elan, by 4-1. The young boys, along with experienced doubles player Rohan Bopanna, taught a thing or two to Uzbekistan, as they progressed into the World Group. However, one man was conspicuous by his absence, and that person was the man, who once made the heavyweights of tennis run for their money. Even after 26 years of his professional debut, if someone still misses him on the tennis courts, it is only due to the caliber that he has shown on the courts. His name is Leander Paes.
Born on Sunday, 17th June 1973, to illustrious parents, Dr. Vece Paes and Jennifer Paes, Leander had sports and sportsmanship in his blood. His own father was an Olympic bronze medalist for the Indian Hockey Team from Munich 1972, while his mother, a direct descendant of poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta, had captained the Indian women’s basketball team once. Barely 18 years old, he made his professional debut in 1991, storming into the quarterfinals of the men’s doubles tennis event at the Barcelona Olympics only a year later, in 1992.
However, the achievement Leander is best known for is his bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics. After going down fighting against tennis mogul of that time, Andre Agassi of USA in the semifinals, Leander had to grapple not only against his rival, Fernando Meligneni of Brazil, but also an injured wrist. However, overcoming all odds, he clinched the bronze medal, ending a 16 year old medal drought for India at the Olympics, and a 44 year drought as an Individual Indian, because Kashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav had won the last individual medal way back for wrestling in Helsinki 1952.
So what happened that put such a prolific player with such an excellent track record out from the Indian team playing at Davis Cup 2017? While many attribute it to other reasons, one prime reason might be the current captain of the Indian squad, who has had a sweet and sour relationship with Leander Paes from the start. Once famous as the ‘Indian Express’ duo, who reigned supreme in the doubles, they’re now sworn enemies; one ready to downplay the other. This man is none other than tennis great and once the other half of the ‘Indian Express’ duo, Mahesh Bhupathi
Once, the duo of Paes and Bhupathi were as inseperable as Krishna and Sudama would have been in ancient times. Other doubles players would be at loss, while the duo would romp home with valuable Grand Slam trophies, among other medals. They narrowly missed the Olympic medal by a whisker in Athens 2004, and at one time, were the No. 1 pair in men’s doubles tennis. However, that was a long time ago.
Today, they’re no longer the duo they once used to be. Although the seeds of discontent were sowed as long back as in 2006, the actual fight came out in 2012, when Mahesh Bhupathi refused to play with Leander Paes for London Olympics, followed by Rohan Bopanna. In compensation, Paes had to play with a much lower ranked Vishnu Vardhan, and ultimately faced a second round exit in the main event.
However, all hell broke loose, when only a few weeks before the Davis Cup 2017 Asia Oceania Group II Round, Mahesh Bhupathi was appointed as the captain of the Indian squad. Straightforward and transparent by attitude, he made sure that the young folks of Indian tennis would be given some teeth, at the possible expense of the senior players, which included Bopanna and Paes. Bopanna took it in his stride and competed well to ensure that he is chosen at least as a reserve player.
Paes, surprisingly cried foul and accused Mahesh Bhupathi of being a cheat, hinting at a possible exclusion owing to the present enmity between the two. According to Paes, he deserved a chance owing to his invaluable experience in the Davis Cup, including a stint in the semifinals of the tournament twice with the Indian team, in 1993 and 1997.
As of now, Mahesh Bhupathi has assured of an appropriate response to Leander Paes. If the above case is true, then this is not the best way to end one’s career, in such an ugly spat. After all, it is Leander Paes who has wished to continue playing for India even in Tokyo Olympics, 2020. If at all Paes wants to make sure he competes for India, he has to make sure that the code of conduct in such complex cases of selection is proper. Nobody can be a permanent member in any team, or else, Leander Paes’s spat with Mahesh Bhupathi might leave him with a bad taste in his mouth, along with an uncertain future. Let’s hope this doesn’t mark the end of Paes’ otherwise illustrious career.