Leander Paes' retirement: When reality intruded into the fable

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Leander Paes' retirement: When reality intruded into the fable

“All good things must come to an end,” reads the pragmatic phrase. It is supposed to offer solace but it seldom does so. For, the appearance of this statement is the verity that change is imminent and what many had strongly clutched to themselves would have to see it fade away.

Leander Paes’ announcement that the upcoming 2020 season would be his last as a tennis pro was one such good thing. Paes’ news comes amid continued professional turbulence. The 46-year-old ended the 2019 season out of the top-100 of the ATP doubles rankings, the first since October 2000, when he was ranked 142nd in the world.

He also finished the year with a negative win-to-loss record of 12-14, with just two final appearances, at the ATP Challenger events in De Nang, Vietnam in January and Ilkley, Great Britain – partnering Mexican Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela and Kiwi Marcus Daniell respectively.

Reyes-Varela and Daniell were, then, two of the several partners the 18-time Grand Slam champion had in the course of his season. He also teamed up with Benoit Paire for a considerable duration, toggling between the Frenchman and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Philipp Oswald, and Sander Gille between the ATP Tour and Challenger events between Montpellier (in February) and the French Open (in June).

The reason was obvious as it was painful. The veteran was trying to secure consistent results as much as he was trying to boost the rankings that would, in turn, help him – and his teammate – gain entry into tournaments.

To elaborate, in 2019, Paes played just two ATP 500 events, in Dubai (with Paire) and Washington (with Sock). The rest of his calendar was interspersed with the four Slams, and a chunk of ATP 250 events apart from the Challengers.

But the year had some memorable moments, too. Like him finally going past Nicola Pietrangeli’s record of most Davis Cup rubbers won, in India’s much-delayed Asia-Oceania Group I tie against Pakistan in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan, in November.

Initially, after having been left out of the squad when it was to be played in Islamabad, Pakistan, Paes’ inclusion into the team at the 11th hour when other players backed out of travelling to the sub-continental nation added heft to the Indian squad.

To the lay-observers, it also left a lasting imprint about Paes’ fidelity vis-à-vis his representation for the nation. Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Paes winning the doubles rubber to give India an unassailable lead in the tie was, then, seen as the fitting reward for the latter’s steadfastness.

Incidentally, Paes’ 2019 season ended with this win. Thus, Paes’ words – in his farewell note – about playing a handful of tournaments take on an underscored significance. Paes’ note mentioned, “I am looking forward to the 2020 tennis calendar where I will be playing a few select tournaments, travelling with my team and celebrating with all my friends and fans around the world”.

Indeed, it would be the first time in a long time that Paes would be playing without the encumbrance of rankings and points. His commitment to each point, each shot, in every match and event he played was top-notch. But even these, in these last handful of years, had come with the added pressure of making it count lest it was the last point he played, in the match and the event.

2020 would be the chance to seeing the zingers that are his signature volleys without thoughts popping up about him losing his step at the net. Nostalgia would make an appearance, too, with the mind’s eye superimposing images of past and the present.

And that is when the strongest hit will land. Of the good thing that would be ending – sooner, with each match and each tournament, rather than later. Paes’ fans have pinned their hopes of seeing him play his eighth Olympic Games in Tokyo, 24 years from when he first played the quadrennial event in 1992, in Barcelona, and 20 years since he won India's first medal in tennis (bronze), at the Atlanta Games, in 1996.

If and when he does play in Tokyo, it would be yet another bittersweet eventuality for it would mean the winding of a unique tennis chapter that may take a while to be replicated by another…