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Why it's time for Leander Paes to retire

Why its time for Leander Paes to retire

Sarah Waris

Published: 26 Jan 2019 7:43 AM GMT

Maybe it was the gleam in his eyes or the unadulterated vulnerability as the national anthem blared out loud amid a packed Khalifa International Tennis Complex during the Doha Asian Games back in 2006.

Perhaps it was those tears that gushed forth unrelentingly as the chords of Jana Gana Mana reached a crescendo, or the manner in which he clutched on to his gold medal dearer than ever. The hyperkinetic chest bumps; the thunderous roars after each point won or the determined focus to triumph despite all odds somewhere struck a chord and even though Leander Paes stood atop the podium with Mahesh Bhupathi in tow, it was the former who would emerge to be my biggest sporting hero in the years to follow.

Blazing on even though age threatened to damage. Inventing and reinventing himself on the circuit day in and day out - last heard he was taking martial arts lessons - to pose a challenge to fitter and newer legs. Changing partners, adapting to their playing styles, garnering respect with his insatiable hunger, jumping in anguish at a point lost or celebrating like a madman at a volley won… Paes emerged as the ageless enigma; the one who tackled the vagaries of time with such brutal consistency that it was tough not to admire, adore and respect him.

For his passion.

For the commitment towards the flag.

For the undying will to walk away with one last hurrah.

The dream of stealing away the limelight as the rapturous audience is on its toes, awing and gasping at the wonder he is after the elusive Olympics doubles medal has been clinched. The national anthem once again. Paes’ inability to control his emotions this time too. Those gleaming eyes; that unadulterated vulnerability; those unrelenting tears…

Yet often it happens, the disparity between the world of fantasy and the harsh reality comes creeping in the most oblivious of ways and as Paes fights on without a Grand Slam title to show for since 2016 and with a W/L ration of 28-37 since 2017, the glaring question swoops in. Is it time for the maverick to finally hang up his boots and bid adieu? 


Bringing up the much-evaded topic of retirement when a sportsman is succumbing constantly is a phenomena that comes with its own debates. On one hand, it is vastly believed that the athlete in question knows his game better than anyone else, and hence is at the best position to make a decision about his playing future. While this might hold true on most occasions, the denial of decline by a player is also real and hence he pushes on for that final moment in the sun. Maybe it is the failure to accept the current run of form or it is the determination to tide over the sullen days with aplomb, the image of a hero waging a lonely battle with poor reflexes and falling fitness is an unfortunate sight.

It hurts then to witness the Calcutta-born player day-in-and-day-out on a war with the inevitable. It is distressing to switch on games where he is participating only to end up with flashbacks of the days that were. And it is exhausting to have hopes burning, only to have it diminished sooner than one would have wanted. However, it is not my personal anguish alone that forces me write a note on his retirement.

It is rather the poor state that Indian tennis finds itself in, which makes me believe that Paes’ services are required elsewhere. It is the inability to cough up a long-term match-winner alongside Rohan Bopanna that has me believing that the 45-year old can use his resources, his experience and his commitment towards the betterment of Indian tennis at the grass-root levels instead.

His overjoyed eruption when he scripted tens and hundreds of memorable wins for the country resonates and if he can rub off the same eagerness among a crop of promising stars, Indian tennis is surely going to benefit.

The primary argument with asking tennis stars to retire is that the sport, unlike cricket is a solo game. While in the latter, the delayed stay of a fallen star can hamper a youngster’s initiation, the same cannot be said of tennis. However, the ones following Indian tennis in the last decade will be well aware of the selection controversies that emerge every time the Olympics come calling. It occurred in 2008, when the pair of Hesh and Paes unenthusiastically paired together, after the Bangalore player had vowed to never play with the latter again.

It unfolded in 2012, after Bhupathi and Bopanna refused to play with Paes and the AITA hesitantly paired Sania Mirza with the 1996 bronze-medalist to pacify the superstar. Interestingly, Mirza had won the French Open with Bhupathi a few weeks before the London Olympics, and instead of pushing forward the best team for the event, the AITA had to settle for a combination that pleased all the players.

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It came to the fore again in 2016, when Bopanna, who had the right to choose his doubles partner for the Olympics, preferred Saketh Myneni, which once again ended with the AITA interfering and teaming together Paes and Bopanna.

Hence, for the last three editions, the Indian tennis men’s doubles contingent have been paired disgruntedly; without the best combinations being put forward. The ego tussles have only done harm to India’s progress, and with the country not having an abundance of special talent either, this poor show has been threatening to usurp the feats that have already been achieved in the past.

One thing is clear, however. Indian tennis runs on status more than on current form..

with former Davis Cup coach Jaideep Mukherjee once famously stating that dropping a well-known name from the Davis Squad even if he was coming off a poor run tended to get risky, as a huge controversy was likely to erupt. Though Paes has been dropped from the upcoming Davis Cup squad that will face Italy in Kolkata next week, if he carries on till 2020, it is but natural that he would want to be in the squad for the Olympics. What then…?

Knowing the history of selection issues for the Games, keeping in mind that Paes will be 47 by then, and considering his current ranking - he has fallen below 50 - it is only best that the stalwart can ease up the road for a younger star, which is ultimately what will push Indian tennis forward.

Farewells are hard; goodbyes are tough, especially when it is for an icon who has inspired and encouraged with his steely doggedness. But a moment arrives when the larger picture should be viewed; the moment when it is finally time to give back to the sport much like the sport has given to you.

(The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Bridge.)

Also read: Dear Mr Bhupathi, I have a question.

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