There is a strange sort of silence that overtakes me today as I sit down to write this. Truth be told, I’ve often failed to recognise the goodness that a goodbye seems to promise. The muted crowd at the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association was perhaps also trying their best to make sense of the end hurtling towards them as you stepped on the court for one final time in India. Did you see it coming so soon, Leander? Standing across the net from another Indian pair desiring to walk in your shadows, did you wish to reel back the years? Purav Raja and Ramkumar Ramanathan may have seized victory in your last game on the Indian turf at the Bengaluru Open 2020 but to me and to the countless fans across the world, you will always remain as the evergreen Champion.
I remember myself as a curious wide-eyed teenager, leafing through the pages of an English daily, stumbling across your name often as you kept winning Grand Slams, consistently adding to assemble the 18 Majors you have won, so far. My dalliance with your name dates back to the time when I wasn’t sufficiently well-worded in tennis but Leander Paes was a person I had begun to know too well. Come every Slam season, I would vociferously root for you and as if hearing my persistent chants from your hometown in Calcutta, you’d be my genie and grant those wishes by winning so triumphantly every time.
As I grew up and learned to fall in love with the sport, I would often find myself marveling at your resilience and fighting spirit on the court. The years rolled by but you always remained like the fierce guardian of Indian tennis, taking responsibility for earning laurels in the doubles and with every victory, inspiring countless youngsters to pick up the racket. The edge-of-the-seat matches have always been bad for my nerves but in all earnest, I would sit quietly praying for you to produce yet another jaw-dropping volley and engage in nimble net-play, flaunting your skills at having one of the quickest reflexes in the game and make a comeback from the clutches of defeat.
The record books have been a familiar place to locate you. Taking to the sport when you were all of 5 before enlisting on the tour professionally in 1991, it has been an illustriously long journey of 29 years, spanning three decades glittering with unmatched feats. You have been there to hold the most number of consecutive match wins (24) in doubles ties at the Davis Cup alongside Mahesh Bhupati. With a record 44 wins at the Davis Cup, you have been India’s knight-in-shining-armor in tennis. Partnering with 130 players throughout your career, you have ruled the Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles arena with your magical touch, scripting history with every win. The records follow you wherever you wander as the memory of the 7 Olympics float in your mind, especially the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bronze medal in singles. The summon of the eighth also beckons with Tokyo 2020 around the corner and the mixed emotions of watching you play in your final Olympic Games, crowd my mind.
But through all of your achievements, it made me wonder what kept you going at 46 years of age, having the desire to give your all to the sport. But somehow it’s people like you who do not let age take charge of the leash that keeps so many of us inspired. The never-say-never spirit and the persistent appetite for victory fuelled by the passion for the game is what makes true Champion’s like you and that’s where you have always stood out.
The last few decades have been the most surreal for the sport with Roger Federer and you, producing age-defying brilliance on the court. Bewitched with this effortless flair you consistently brought, I’ve been swept along the tide of these glorious years forgetting your exit from this great grand stage, however inevitable, is not a tragedy exclusive to India, but for tennis itself.
Let your memories grow stronger and stronger
‘Til they’re before your eyes
You’ll come back
When they call you
No need to say goodbye
The rapid hands of time slide fast on the clock called life. In a blink, the best of years disappear, the sun quietly descends, as autumn beckons the early winter dusks. As you left the court, the tears brimming in your eyes, a medley of emotions clamouring at your heart in confused disharmony, I could only envision the gnawing gap that you left vacant, as you merged into the sunset months of your career. The very soil that molded you were stunned to silence as well.
I tell myself all is not over yet as the season of lasts continues for you as you bellow loudly with ‘One Last Roar’. Endings are difficult to process and it’s scary thinking of the days ahead when India will be left without its fierce guardian in tennis. The countdown has begun already, the sand-timer is half-full, as you bid your farewell to the court you’ve dedicated the better half of your life to. Tennis will never be the same and India will always remain indebted to your Champion spirit, long after your final serve is aced and the victory is eternally won.
A tennis-lover in denial of your farewell