Indian tennis legend Leander Paes is ready for one last hurrah when he teams up with the Indian squad for this week’s Davis Cup play-offs in Zagreb.
India is scheduled to play Croatia in the play-off at the Dom Sportova hall on March 6-7, with the 46-year-old Paes likely to start alongside Rohan Bopanna in the doubles. Sumit Nagal (No.127), Prajnesh Gunneswaran (No.134) and Ramkumar Ramanathan (No.180) are the other members in captain Rohit Rajpal’s squad.
Youngster Borna Coric may miss the tie with a hand injury, but a formidable Croatian challenge is being led by former US Open champion Marin Cilic (No.36) along with Borna Gojo (No.276), Nino Serdarusic (No.295) and the doubles pair of Ivan Dodig and Mate Pavic.
The winner of the encounter will secure a spot in the Davis Cup finals in Madrid to be held in November.
Paes is aware that this week’s appearance may well be the final one for his country at the Davis Cup. He holds the record for the most Davis Cup doubles wins with 44 victories – surpassing Nicola Pietrangeli’s 42 wins – since he first played in 1990.
And now, three decades after playing in his first ATP Tour event, Paes will play select tournaments throughout the 2020 season as part of a farewell tour that he’s named #OneLastRoar. His last tournament on Indian soil was at the Tata Open Maharashtra Pune in February, where he teamed up with Matthew Ebden to upset second seeds Divij Sharan and Artem Sitak and reach the quarter-finals.
Handed a wild card, the Indo-Australian pair came up with a similar performance two weeks later at the Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open where they knocked out second seeds Filip Polasek and Ivan Dodig in straight sets. “Man, don’t get me started as this is going to be the last one,” Paes told Gulf News in a candid chat.
“I mean, I knew some day that it would come to an end, especially in the last five years. I knew some day it would come around. There’s so many other ways to entertain my friends. There’s so many other ways to create magic. There are so many other ways that one can earn a living. What I will miss the most is the friendships,” he added.
Paes revealed that he met with world No.1 Novak Djokovic and his coach and former Grand Slam winner Goran Ivanisevic to hand them both his #One LastRoar T-shirts. “Goran told me he was scheduled to travel with Novak to Palm Springs and start preparations for the North American season but now, he’s promised to stay back in Zagreb and attend the Davis Cup tie. You win some matches, you lose some matches, you win some titles and you lose some, but the relationship we share are the biggest trophies,” he asserted.
Paes’ contribution has been pretty special in the doubles game of men’s tennis. He had spent 39 weeks at No.1 in the FedEx ATP Doubles Rankings, racked up 769 Tour-level victories and won 54 ATP Tour doubles titles, including eight Grand Slam men’s doubles crowns. He has also teamed up with legends like Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis among others to win 10 Grand Slam mixed doubles crowns, while completing the career Grand Slam in both men’s doubles and mixed doubles.
There has been plenty of success in singles as well for Paes with a Tour title in 1998 in Newport, along with a bronze at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He now hopes he can play in perhaps one more Olympics, his eighth, in Tokyo later this year. “You never know, maybe I will be there. We shall see. I think it’s important that India always has the world records. I think it’s important as a deep patriot to make our flag fly high. If I can do one more, push the bar up a little bit, great, even greater for India. If I can be there, greater for me,” Paes hoped.
Extremely popular among the Indian diaspora at the Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open, Paes was felicitated on centre court before the fans last Friday. “Completing 20 years here in 2020 is magical. I think it speaks a lot of the history, the memories I’ve created in Dubai. It’s one of my favourite tournaments in the world. I think that the Dubai Duty Free with tournament director Salah Tahlak and Ramesh Cidambi and with Colm McLoughlin, they do a phenomenal job in running this event to make sure that the players are comfortable, that the players are happy,” Paes complimented.
Paes is not fully certain of his exact schedule this year, but he is hoping he can figure at the next three grand slams and reach a magical 100 total appearances in major championships. “I am currently on 97 grand slam appearances, and taking it to a triple would be something special. It has been a humbling experience and it is the people who have made it so for me,” he added.