Leander Paes is a remarkably gifted athlete. He is fast across the court, has wonderful hands and court-sense, conjures angles that most other tennis players may not even dream of, and has somehow managed to retain razor-sharp reflexes, even though a couple of months ago, he turned 40, making him one of the oldest active players on the ATP Tour.
Now, Paes isn't the kind of player who obsesses over hitting the gym or bulking up. A friend said the other day that he seldom practises with manic zeal on the eve of a Grand Slam, unlike some others who feel the desperate need to arrest the passage of time with hours on the treadmill or pumping iron or some such. Paes is 40, yes, but to him, that is nothing more than a number. He has often stated that you are only as old as you feel, and he most certainly feels a reasonably young 40.
Paes is not just a wonderful athlete, but he is also a very intelligent man who figured out reasonably early in his career that he didn't have the weapons to be a top singles player on a consistent basis. He had his moments in singles play, most notably while representing the country. His Davis Cup record is little short of exemplary, and he picked up a most treasured bronze at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, but Paes's legend on the Tour was built on his extraordinary doubles skills that have netted him a host of Majors in men's and mixed doubles with several different partners.
On Thursday (September 5), with Radek Stepanek - himself no spring chicken at 34 - for company, Paes dashed the hopes of Bryan twins Mike and Bob, seeking to become the first pair in 62 years to win all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year. Paes, popular all over the world not only for his doubles skills but for the entertainment he provides and for bouncing back from a potentially life-threatening illness, and Stepanek surged into the final of the US Open at New York, stopping the Bryans with a superb three-set victory that was the appetiser before the main course in which Stan Wawrinka devoured Andy Murray, the defending champion.
Temporarily at least, Paes snatched the spotlight away from another 40-year-old legend who has needlessly been sucked into a controversy of someone else's making, though no one is sure exactly who that someone else is. Two months before Paes turned 40 in June, Sachin Tendulkar ushered in his 40th birthday, celebrated with gusto by family and friends and well-wishers, all of whom are all too aware that the Master is in the final stages of the most celebrated and awe-inspiring journey.
Where Paes decided fairly early in his pro career that he was better off focusing on doubles, Tendulkar opted reasonably late in his career to concentrate on Test cricket while eschewing the limited-overs formats at the international level. Paes's decision was a considered one given his build and his game - all touch and finesse but far from overwhelming - while Tendulkar's was more a forced one, given that injuries have ravaged his body and the constant scramble of international cricket has taken a toll on body and mind. And given also that he felt the need to spend more time with a young family that saw Tendulkar more on television than in person.
Irrespective of whether he and Stepanek pull off the final or not, Paes will be the talking point for no more than a week. Then, all attention will squarely shift towards Tendulkar once again, and particularly when the venues for the two Test matches against West Indies are announced.
Tendulkar has played 198 Test matches. It's a flat, dull, boring sentence - until you consider that, give or take, it amounts to 990 days of Test cricket alone. That's some 200 days or so more than the next man. A high percentage of those who have played at the highest level don't have 200 Test match days to their credit. That might serve to put in perspective the longevity of the man, who broke through as a chubby, baby-faced, curly-haired 16-year-old and continues to enthrall and entertain and inspire 24 years later.
It's impossible for Tendulkar not to feel his age. Paes made his professional debut not long after Tendulkar did, but for the most part, he played on an individual basis. He wasn't part of a team unless it was at the Davis Cup, the Olympics or the Asian and the Commonwealth Games; he pursued an individual sport and therefore wasn't under as much scrutiny or pressure. His successes were celebrated as a national triumph, but his failures didn't trigger national anguish or dismay. Largely, Paes was a champion performer doing his thing away from the probing eyes, unless it was at the big events that were beamed to a doting audience back home.
Despite the lesion in his brain that threatened for a while to end his competitive career, Paes is a young, fresh 40-year-old who has managed to keep his enthusiasm going. He is a fiercely proud individual who wears his heart on his sleeve, is unashamed to shed a tear or two in public, who is as intense and driven and passionate as they come. Most of his lonely travails on the ATP Tour have slipped under the radar because tennis doesn't receive the year-round coverage in India that cricket does - there must be at least a dozen cricket experts, if not more, for every tennis expert in the country - but that doesn't make his journey any less remarkable.
Tendulkar, on the other hand, has had to carry the burden of expectations for so long now that one can't remember if there ever was a time when he was allowed the luxury of a failure. Even when Sehwag was blazing away, Dravid was gracefully baulking the meanest of bowlers and Laxman was gently bleeding them dry, Tendulkar had to score. There was a time when people didn't mind if India lost so long as Tendulkar scored. He was deified, hero-worshipped, idolated and idolised; he was made the God of Indian cricket, a tag that has always disturbed him but one that he accepted because to him, it signified the love and affection of the Indian fan.
Today, the pedestal is a little shaky, the fans a lot less forgiving, the pundits busy sharpening their knives. Agreed, Tendulkar isn't quite the force he used to be, and that is only to be expected, but to see some of the recent disrespect is disturbing, to say the least. But that's another matter altogether.
As he braces up for what is most likely his last few months in international cricket, Tendulkar will have taken note of his good friend Leander's excellent recent run which includes a semifinal appearance at Wimbledon earlier in the year. His other good tennis mate, Roger Federer, finds himself in much the same position as Tendulkar, even if at 32, he is a lot younger than Tendulkar and Paes. Federer might not look at Paes for inspiration, but Tendulkar most certainly will. If the little big man of Indian cricket can take the lead from the little big man of Indian tennis, the next few months could throw up something special. And prove once again, if proof was needed, that age is little more than a number, especially for a champion.