Kolkata: The 2020 edition of the Bengaluru Open wore a reasonably packed look as compared to the usual Challenger tournament which wears a deserted look. And the sole reason behind this was none other than the greatest servant of Indian sports — Leander Paes.
This was after all Paes’ last ATP event on home soil and if at all there needed to be any testimony of the Indian tennis legend’s popularity, it was the crowd at the Bengaluru Open, lining up to bid the sport’s icon a fitting farewell.
Paes and his Australian partner Mathew Ebden, lost 6-0, 6-3 in the Bengaluru Open Challenger tour final against Indian pair of Purav Raja and Ramkumar Ramanathan, who’ve already won three of the four tournaments they’ve played together in a dream run. But for the ‘ageless’ Paes, 46, it was about finding meaning in what was an imperfect end.
He is still the face of Indian tennis, in many ways, getting people to fill the stands to see just one guy play like it happened once again at the KSLTA Stadium. There couldn’t have been a more apt tagline than “The Last Roar” for Paes as he continues his journey in the homes stretch of his tennis career and he was duly felicitated by former Olympians and sports persons.
There were athletes who began their career at the same time as Paes but called it a day while the 46-year-old, held a nation’s hopes together in a career spanning 30 years and decorated with many awards.
Paes won India a singles Olympic medal in 1996, landed 18 Grand Slam doubles titles — eight in men’s doubles and 10 in mixed doubles — and lasted all of seven Olympic appearances, the highest ever by a tennis player.
By lifting the 2010 Wimbledon mixed doubles trophy in 2010, Paes became only the second man after Rod Laver to win a Grand Slam in three different decades.
In April 2018, the ever-passionate Paes fought like a war-hero as he and Rohan Bopanna combined to eke past Chinese pair of Mao-Xin Gong and Ze Zhang in the doubles rubber of the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I round two underway in Tianjin, China. India were down 0-2 and needed to bounce back. They had Paes, like always, to show them the path and then Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran won their respective singles matches in straight sets to help India clinch the tie 3-2.
That doubles victory saw Paes break free from Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli as the most successful doubles player in the team tournament with 43 wins coming in 56 ties, to Pietrangeli’s 66 ties for his 42. The Indian also stands fifth in the most number of wins in Davis Cup, with a record of 91-35.
Just before the singles final on Sunday, when Paes was given a rousing farewell with stars from various sports including former hockey players Jude Felix, VR Raghunath, Arjun Halappa, former track and field athlete Ashwini Nachappa and Davis Cupper Prahlad Srinath, the Kolkata born became emotional.
“All of you taught me how the passion for sport, dedication and hard work helps us to achieve success,” said Paes while requesting the audience to give a standing ovation to the former athletes.
Former swimmers Reshma and Nisha Millet, former heptathlete Pramila Aiyappa and former long jumper Reeth Abraham were also present.
“The fact that I’ve played my last match in India — it sunk in after the match when I was signing autographs. A young girl — must have been five or six years old — gave me a ‘One Last Roar’ t-shirt which was twice her size.
“She gave it to me and said, ‘Leander, can you sign this?’. She must have been about 40 years younger to me, and she wanted my autograph. It meant a lot to me, because she recognised the effort I have put into my career.
“And when I signed the t-shirt and gave it to her, she turned around and said ‘Bye’. She said bye. That’s a great way to go,” Paes had said after his final match on home soil on Saturday.
There were all kinds of spectators at the KSLTA Stadium on Sunday, paying glowing tribute to Paes’s peerless legacy and soaking in the euphoria of probably his last hurrah on home soil.
It remains to be seen whether Paes can make it to the Tokyo Olympics squad to extend his record to an eighth appearance. But going by look of things, it could be his last telling contribution to Indian tennis and sport in general before the great drops his tennis racket.
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