Win or lose, India will be celebrating its most successful Davis Cup player this weekend when Leander Paes’ 20 years in the competition are acknowledged in a special ceremony in Chennai on Saturday.
The 37 year-old completed his 20th year in the competition at the end of 2010, and has taken part every year since 1990. The World Group play-off tie against Brazil will be his 47th tie representing his country.
Paes has experienced many of India’s highs and lows in his 20 years in Davis Cup. His debut in the competition came three years after his country’s most recent appearance in the Davis Cup final (the Indians have been runners-up three times), but was a memorable way to start.
Paes and Zeeshan Ali won a five-set doubles rubber against Shuzo Matsuoka and Shigeru Ota 18-16 in the final set to secure a 4-1 victory over Japan in Chandigarh. This set the tone for a Davis Cup career marked by battling performances from a player who has always been passionate about playing for his country.
Although more known for his doubles achievements on the tour, Paes has clocked up 48 wins in singles and 37 in doubles in Davis Cup, playing both as recently as 2008. He has an 85-31 record in total in the competition, and his 37-9 doubles record is second only all-time in Davis Cup to Nicola Pietrangeli.
Many of those doubles victories were with Mahesh Bhupathi, with whom he won three of his six Grand Slam men’s doubles titles and the Olympic bronze medal at Atlanta 1996.
Paes helped India reach the semifinals in 1993, playing singles and doubles to secure wins over Switzerland and France before losing to Australia. His dedication to the team has extended to him being playing captain on several occasions.
Paes’ first two decades in Davis Cup ended on a high last year, with India being promoted to the World Group for the first time in 12 years. The nation’s win over South Africa in the 2010 World Group play-offs broke a run of seven successive losses in play-off ties, but this weekend against Brazil, India is back there again. The hosts will attempt to stay in the Davis Cup elite for two successive years for the first time since 1998.
At a press conference in Chennai on Wednesday on the eve of the draw, much was made about home advantage by both the Indian and Brazilian teams.
Brazilian captain Joao Zwetsch said India would be difficult opponents because they are hosting, “but both our singles players being ranked above Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna is a positive factor, and Davis Cup is all about emotion and the psychological factor is important. Davis Cup is all about playing with the heart and giving everything on court.”
Bruno Soares agreed that the Indians are a very good team with experienced players and an impressive Davis Cup record, but said the Brazilian players would give their best, adding, ‘”We remain hopeful of our chances.’’
Indian captain SP Mishra said that the backing of the crowd would be important for his team, and pointed out that, often, “in Davis Cup rankings don’t matter much.” Bhupathi agreed. “Hopefully the home advantage will take us through.’’ he said,
For singles player Rohan Bopanna, fresh from his success in reaching the final of the US Open as one half of the Indo-Pak Express with Aisam Qureshi, it was a pleasure just to be there. He said he feels no pressure, which could be useful for the home nation in the weekend ahead.