Leander stands tall still... 
Leander Paes partnered Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia to lift the doublesí title in the recent Chennai Open ATP event. He has once again proved that age is no bar in maintaining his winning spree. M. S. Unnikrishnan reports on how Paes has conquered new goalposts with each successive win

He old war horse is still going strong at 38 years, heís setting new goals, and shifting goalposts far, to conquer new frontiers on the tennis horizon. Leanderís wins are remarkable, considering the inability of the younger lot like Somdev Devvarman, Yukhi Bhambri and Rohan Bopanna to make their marks in big-ticket events.

Leander partnered Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia to lift the doubles title in the Chennai Open ATP event recently. The Indo-Serbian pair downed the Israeli duo of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram in straight sets 6-4, 6-4 to win the title, which was Leanderís first after parting company with Mahesh Bhupathi. Leander split with Mahesh when the latter decided to pair up with Rohan Bopanna. Bopanna has had a successful run in various tournaments across the world last year with Aisam Qureshi of Pakistan. Incidentally, Erlich and Ram had beaten Bhupathi and Bopanna in the semi-final before falling prey to Leander and Tipsarevic in the title contest.

While Mahesh Bhupathi (right) has opted for Rohan Bopanna as his doublesí partner, Leander Paes has not made up his mind on his partner
While Mahesh Bhupathi (right) has opted for Rohan Bopanna as his doublesí partner, Leander Paes has not made up his mind on his partner Photo: AFP

It was Leanderís sixth doubles title in the Chennai Open, though in the previous five occasions, Bhupathi was his winning partner. After the loss in the singles, Tipsarevic was eager to annex at least the doubles crown, and it was a proud moment for the Serbian when he absorbed Leanderís tips to play the winning role on way to his maiden doubles title.

This year, the Chennai Open was a sad spectacle, as shorn of the usual razzmatazz, the event elicited little spectator response, barring the semi-finals and finals. It is strange that the biggest tennis event hosted by India does not attract fans, though Chennai has the reputation of being a city with hordes of tennis-playing, knowledgeable fans. Perhaps, fansí expectations had risen markedly after being treated to high-quality tennis in the past. The likes of Rafael Nadal had been to the Chennai Open thrice, before he became a rage on the Grand Slam stage, and beyond the reach of the Indian ATP event. This fact was confirmed by organising committee chairman Karthik Chidambaram. Unless the Chennai event gets a nice makeover, major players will skip the event for greener pastures, in future.

Though Leander partnered Tipsarevic for the first time in the 250-point Chennai ATP event, and would partner Radek Stepanek in the Australian Open, he has not made up his mind as to whom he would`pair up in the other Grand Slam events before the Olympics, and, most importantly, the 2012 London Olympics. The intent of Leander and Bhupathi patching up after a long separation was with an eye on the London Olympics. But they could not win a single Grand Slam event last year, nor`any major ATP event either. And hence they split, as Bhupathi preferred to partner the younger`Bopanna, whom he had played a major role`in grooming, as a mentor and guide. Moreover, Bopanna had honed`his tennis skills at the Bhupathi tennis village in Bangalore, and it was thus a natural progression for the two Southern stars to join hands, with the Olympics`as their main target.'

Leander Paes and Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia with the winnersí trophy after the Chennai Open ATP event
Leander Paes and Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia with the winnersí trophy after the Chennai Open ATP event

Leander wants to sign off his glorious career with an Olympic gold in his kitty, though heís unsure of whom to partner. Leander has been the most successful Indian tennis player, whose credentials are impeccable. He has the distinction of winning the second individual Olympic medal for Indiaóa bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Gamesówhich came 45 years after K.D.Jhadhav struck a wrestling bronze in the Olympics. And 16 years on, the fire in Leanderís belly for an Olympic gold has only raged.

The tragedy of Indian tennis is that though thousands of boys and girls `play the game across the country, most of them wither away at the junior level, as not many are willing to rough it out to reach the top. `And the few who show promise, never live up to their potential and talent. The likes of Sania Mirza, Somdev Devvrman and Yukhi Bhambri are examples of talent going astray, with their shift in focus, though much is still expected from Bhambri and Somdev. Bhambhri had promised much when he won the Junior`Australian Grand Slam event two years ago. Though since then, he has opted to play with the big boys in the menís section, Bhambhriís career has not shaped up as expected. Leander`Paes too had majored into the menís circuit after winning the Wimbledon and the US Open junior crowns in 1990 and 1991, respectively, and`A0see where heís today.

Leander continues to be an inspiration for the younger players, but only if they had his commitment and drive to succeed where it matters.

Leander has three Grand Slam events before the Olympics to firm up his doubles partnership, but whether he would rejoin Bhupathiís company for the Olympic campaign, would depend on many factors, including the stance that would be taken by the All India Tennis Federation. For, the countryís interest should come before personal ego clashes, or clashes of interest.