Mahesh Bhupathi: The monkey is finally off Leander Paes' back
India skipper Mahesh Bhupathi hails teammate Paes for his record 43rd Davis Cup doubles win which helps India beat China 3-2 in do-or-die tie
India tennis ace Leander Paes during the Davis Cup tie against China in Tianjin on Saturday. Pic/Suvam Pal
It was a bright and sunny day in Tianjin, one of China's mega-metropolis, which is 150-odd kms away from the Chinese capital, Beijing, and also the birthplace of Olympic legend Eric Liddell. As they say, cometh the hour, cometh the man. Leander Paes, who once brought an end to India's 44-year-long individual Olympic medal wait, brought India out of a seemingly impossible situation at a stadium, located just a few kilometre away from the track which was once designed by a legendary Liddell, who returned to China after his Olympic glory and spent the rest of his life in the middle kingdom.
India were trailing 2-0 after Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagpal bit the dust against their respective Chinese opponents Wu Yibing and Zhang Ze on the Hard-plexipave at Tianjin Tennis Centre on the opening day in 'brutal conditions' as the Indian captain, Mahesh Bhupathi, had described on the eve of the Asia-Oceania Group 1 second round tie.
Paes, the saviour
Playing on the Chinese soil, 28 years after donning the India colours for the first time at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, Paes was once again shouldering the burden of bailing the Indian Davis Cup team out of an almost hopeless situation.
Paired up with Bopanna, Paes made a blazing start with an early break but soon ran out of steam against the upbeat Chinese pair of Gong Mao-Xin and Zhang Ze to concede the first set. Occasional flashes of brilliance and rare cross-court winners at crucial junctures, helped the formidable Indian pair drag the first set to the tie-breaker. The experience of Paes-Bopanna prevailed over the gung ho home-favourites as the Indians clawed their way back into the game, winning the tie-breaker in style.
The third and final set was no exception as a slew of unforced errors and a spirited show by the Chinese pair, in front of a partisan home crowd, took the final set down to the wire. When the chips are down, Paes is known to be bucked up by the 'go Leander go' cheers and known to bring out his best.
He just did that on an exceptionally chilly spring day with vocal support from his teammates and a handful of Indian spectators. The ageless Indian and a charged up Bopanna made no mistake to outsmart their rookie opponents in the second tie-breaker of the match. The Chinese doubles challenge was won 5-7, 7-6, 7-6.
The record 43rd Davis Cup doubles win for a vintage Paes not only brought India back to contention but also helped him surpass Italian Nicola Pietrangeli's record of 42 doubles wins. "The monkey is finally off his back and it's an extraordinary achievement for any player at the international level," said Bhupathi.
Leander thanks family
"I want to dedicate this record to my parents, my family and daughter. Without their constant motivation and support, I won't have ever achieved this," an ecstatic Paes remarked. But Paes wasn't done yet. As Ramanathan was overpowering Wu Di in the first reverse singles to level the tie, Paes was seen constantly cheering for his young compatriot before rushing out of the stadium to get food and drinks for his team from an American coffee chain outside the stadium.
Then he returned to motivate Prajnesh Gunnswaran, who out-served and out-rallied Chinese wonder kind Wu Yibing in straight sets in the fifth and final match to clinch the tie.