After a lot of to-and-fro between the Indian, Pakistani, and world tennis federations over the choice of the venue (Islamabad) for an India-Pakistan Asia/Oceania Group I Davis Cup tennis tie, it was finally held in freezing Kazakhstan capital of Nur-Sultan. The consolation was that the tie was played indoors at the National Tennis Center, on November 29 and 30, with India blanking Pakistan 4-0. The fifth singles match was not even required to be played.
Never-say-die Leander Paes, all of 46, partnering Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, thrashed Pakistan’s Huzaifa Abdul Rehman and Muhammad Shoaib in the doubles match to seal the five-match tie 3-0, after Ramkumar Ramanathan had beaten Shoaib and Sumit Nagpal routed Huzaifa. Nagpal won the first reverse singles, against Yousaf Khalil, to make it 4-0. To be fair to Pakistan, they were a completely greenhorns after their most experienced players, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and Aqeel Khan, had pulled out in protest as the tie was moved out of Islamabad, the original venue.
But it was Paes, who hogged the limelight as the 46-year-old old war horse bettered his own world record doubles wins to 44. On the team’s return to New Delhi in the early hours of Monday, Paes spoke passionately about his love representing India in for Davis Cup. Interestingly, Paes was not in the original squad chosen for the tie, but after non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and a few other players pulled out of the tiw citing security concerns.
With this win, India progress to the Qualifiers, a stage where they will face two-time Davis Cup champions Croatia from March 6-7.
Besides Paes, non-playing captain Rohit Rajpal and team coach Zeeshan Ali also spoke to the media at the All India Tennis Federation (AITA) premises in New Delhi on Monday evening. Excerpts from the media interaction:
A lot was said about this tie when people were not being selected or dropping out of this tie because of the country [Pakistan]. What was the mindset when you were going into this tie against Pakistan, after so much was talked about surroundings and not about the sport in particular?
Paes: As a representative of the country, when we put the blue on, when we play for the flag, just a solider never asks who we are fighting against, as athletes we use our tennis racquets to represent our country. For me in particular, the environment I grew up with my parents and for these two boys [Zeeshan Ali and Rohit Rajpal], especially, we share the same ideology. When it comes to playing for our country we don’t ask where and who our opponents are. We represent our country to the best of our ability. That is one of the reasons I want to commend everyone at the AITA, and these two senior [Zeeshan Ali and Rohit Rajpal] of mine, for a job really well done. As you rightly said, a few of the boys who were not wanting to go to Pakistan to play against them. The AITA has got all their emails, saying they will not play there. That being said, I think they have done a great job in getting the boys to come and play at a neutral venue. I also believe that Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal have done a great job in making themselves available to play against Pakistan. And the way they conducted themselves and the way they came for the training camp before the tie, the way the team atmosphere was so wonderful, it was like lions we were ready to go.
Does it feel hurt or do you feel bad in circumstances like these when you are selected? Had it been and had all these players have agreed, you wouldn’t have been selected.
Paes: Hmmm...I have thought about it a few times. But when AITA approached me and aked me if I would be willing to play in Islamabad against Pakistan, I said ‘yes’. Before asking ‘why’ and before asking [about] the circumstances, I ‘bleed blue’. I’ve done it since the day I knew what it meant [representing India], because of my parents. They both represented the country and both bled blue. I think the environment you are brought up nurtures who you are, and I think with these two cats [Zeeshan and Rajpal] at the helm of the Davis Cup team at the moment they are setting the environment for the youngsters. See, I am not going to play too much longer. I’ve had a great 30-year stint in the Davis Cup. I’ve lived my career playing for the country. So, for me, when it comes to being called for a [Davis Cup] tie, whatever the circumstances are I’ll be there.
But I wouldn’t have been who I am without Rohit and Zeeshan because what they have done for me in my career. And AITA has been phenomenal. I know I am giving you long answers, but these things mean a lot to me. Simple details that man there [AITA coordinator] said that you are going to -20 Degrees Celsius temperature. So, when we came to Delhi, the AITA get us to pick winter jackets, gloves, stuff to cover our heads and ears, inners, so that we are warm while we play. The gear that we played with, the racquets, the track suits was all specific to what our needs were. Seven weeks ago when I was first asked to come, and the way it has come together, and to sit here right now, I couldn’t have scripted it better – that regardless of the team that Pakistan sent we beat them 4-0. They won only seven games out of four matches. The Indian team did a great job under Rohit and Zeeshan.
How challenging was it to play in -20 Degree Celsius and when was the last time you had played in such conditions?
Paes: I’ve never played in minus...it was -31 Degree Celsius but also remember we played indoors. So there was a bit of heat and warmth in there. But it was still miserably cold outside. It was a bit of a challenge. Whenever you play outside home you always have to acclimatise. But I’ve also got to thank the Khazak tennis association. The hospitality they showed us we are very grateful for. The association president [Bulat Utemuratov] himself blessed the tie.
Tell us something about the difficult tie, like making arrangement for tennis related things.
Rajpal: it was extremely, extremely cold. I don’t think we realised before we left form here what we were getting into. And, in fact, we were wondering why these heavy coasts, hats and gloves...we thought we were not going to use them. But we went out there, it was so difficult to stand out – a couple of us were not even wearing inners when we landed there – for more than two or three minutes. The physios really, really worked hard. I must thank them. There were long warm-ups and recovery sessions. In these kinds of conditions, I’ve played before, in Sweden, in -15 Degree Celsius and stuff like that. You can tear a muscle and not even know for five hours that you’ve torn a muscle, till the time you cool down. And you could be carrying it and further damaging it.
How did you people celebrate? Was vodka there?
Paes: I don’t drink.
Rajpal: There was a very kind gentleman there who owned an Indian restaurant invited us. The good part was there were a lot of Indian medical students there. On the first day we saw a few hundreds of them coming and the word spread and on Saturday, maybe, 800-1,000 people coming from India. We were shocked, like ‘where did these kids come from?’
Coach, what does Leander bring to the table, besides the experience?
Zeeshan: Experience is the one thing that he brings to the table. Having played the amount of Davis Cup matches he has played, won, and set records, no matter where in the world we go, no matter which team we play, they all look up to him; and they doesn’t have to be only Indian players. The feeling that you get in Davis Cup you can never experience in an individual tournament or match. How to deal with that situation, the pressure of representing a billion people, the media, the expectations of people is something that nobody knows better than Leander. So, we talk to junior players – Rohit has played Davis Cup and I’ve played for 10 years – or sit down for a meal a few days before a tie, it’s how we prepare these boys, because it has so much got to do with the mind rather the abilities. Leander’s experience helps the junior players cope with when they step on to the court. So, what he says counts for a hell of a lot.