Leander Paes: A louder cheer for Indian tennis' first player Hall of Famer please
From father Dr Vece Paes to Zeeshan Ali, Davis Cup coach and former teammate, his honour is a moment of pride and emotion for all
When the announcement of Leander Paes becoming the first Indian player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame came earlier this week, he was already in Pune as one of the co-owners of the franchises at the ongoing Tennis Premier League (TPL). As someone who acquired stakes in the new team Bengal Wizards earlier this year, he may not have been playing but looked as animated as ever from the sidelines with his team in action on social media.
That’s the quintessential Paes for you, who turned 50 in June this year, always wearing his heart on his sleeves and egging on his players to give off their best. The Hall of Fame is but a timely recognition of his longevity as a professional for over 30 years, eight-time men’s doubles Grand Slam champion and an occupant of the world No.1 doubles rankings for weeks – not to speak of the often Superhuman feats he scaled in the Davis Cup arena and seven (yes, that’s right) Olympic appearances.
It will, hence, be a huge moment for Indian tennis – which thrived from time to time on individual heroes rather than on a sustained basis on the global stage – when Paes and Vijay Amritraj will be the first Asians to be honoured on 20 July 2024 at a ceremony during the Hall of Fame tournament in Newport. Amritraj, India’s biggest export in singles after Ramanathan Krishnan, will be honoured in the Contributor category as a broadcaster and promoter along celebrated tennis writer Richard Evans.
“It has been my life’s honour to play for my country for over three decades in a sport that has given and taught me everything,” said the Kolkata-born Paes, who owns a Davis Cup record 45 doubles rubbers in addition to an Olympic bronze medal in men’s singles in 1996. “This acknowledgment is indeed the ultimate accolade for every tennis player. Induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame belongs not just to me, but to our billion-plus Indians. Receiving this honour culminates a professional journey of a lifetime, standing on the shoulders of greats and sets the tone for other youngsters in Asia and around the world,” he told the ATP.
The enormity of being inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame sinks in further when one realises that there have been only 262 of them from 27 countries so far across categories. The role of fan votes plays a huge role in it as the conditions say that ‘’a candidate must receive an affirmative vote of 75% or more from the official voting group result or a combined total of 75% or more from the Official Voting Group result and any bonus percentage points they earn through the fan vote.’’ The trio of Paes, Carlos Moya, the former world No.1 from Spain and now a coach of Rafa Nadal and Ana Ivanovic, another former world No.1 from Serbia, were leading the votes till the former broke through in this category.
Can Indian tennis really produce another one like him? Ask Dr Vece Paes, his father-mentor-guide all rolled into one, not to speak of being an Olympic bronze medallist in hockey in 1972 himself, and the reply is objective. ‘’This kind of discussion happens but someone always comes through to fill in the void. It comes in a cycle as Vijay came after Ramanathan, then it was Ramesh followed by Leander. There may be a time lapse but a successor will surely be there,’’ he said.
Speaking to National Herald, Dr Paes felt while the recognition is a just reward for his son’s longevity and accomplishments, the way Leander worked around his physical shortcoming to build his game was remarkable. ‘’After Leander won the junior Wimbledon, I pulled him out of the BAT (Britannia Amritraj Tennis) Programme as he wanted to hit the road on the Tour. When I asked him how he would cope with the physically stronger Europeans and Americans, he assured me that while they relied on the power game, he would focus on the speed game. He did keep his word,’’ said Dr Paes
Zeeshan Ali, the Davis Cup coach of India who was Paes’s senior partner during the latter’s Davis Cup debut back in 1989 against Japan, was effusive in his praise for the former teammate. ‘’Nobody deserved this honour in India more than Leander, given his contribution to Indian tennis as well as on the ATP Tour. While his exploits in doubles get talked about more in recent times, what gets overshadowed is the fact that he was a top-100 singles player and won in his Olympics medal in singles only – not to speak of his stature as a Davis Cup hero,’’ Ali said during a chat.
Paes spent a total of 462 weeks inside the Top 10 of the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Rankings, including 37 weeks as No. 1. With 10 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles in addition to his eight in men's doubles, he is one of only three men in tennis history to capture a career Grand Slam in both disciplines. His 10 mixed crowns came along with his former partner, Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova, for the most in history.
Back in 2020, Paes had announced plans for his farewell Tour called ‘One Last Roar,’ a plan which fell through because of the pandemic. This time around, Indian tennis needs to celebrate its worthy Hall of Famer!