Leander Paes and the audacity of a down-the-line service return

Leander Paes in action against in the US Open 2015 mixed doubles final. Photo: Ned Dishman/USTA (Courtesy: www.usopen.org)

Leander Paes in action against in the US Open 2015 mixed doubles final. Photo: Ned Dishman/USTA (Courtesy: www.usopen.org)

It will be an image that will be entrenched in the minds of those who watched it, one of Leander Paes picking up a Sam Querrey serve and sending it for a down-the-line winner in the US Open mixed doubles final. It was not backed by power but placement. It oozed confidence – bordering on the audacious – at as crucial a stage of the championship game as at 7-7 in the super tie-break

Come to think of it, it was an extraordinarily cunning shot at a very emotional stage of the final. It called for extra touch of precision since it was not blasted back with power. Having hit nearly all his winners down the middle. Leander Paes, the ageless wonder from India, pulled the rabbit out of the hat as it were and stunned his opponents as much as Martina Hingis herself.

With so much at stake, many would have attempted percentage play, trying to get the ball back on the feet of the server. But not Leander Paes. Much later, his partner, Switzeland’s Martina Hingis reflected on his shot and said: “You have to really have the guts to go that return down the line and make the difference when it counts.”

Clearly, Leander Paes was backing his instinct, now honed by years of doubles play with scores of partners. Clearly, he knew he had his partner’s implicit, unquestioning trust, when taking the risky route rather than the conventional, defensive line. It was almost as if he was digging deep down his own soul to find that extra bit when it mattered the most.

“What I love about this teamwork is that in any partnership there’s got to be one person who brings the energy to the team. There’s got to be one person who takes all the pressure on their shoulder and drives the team forward. I know if I can keep Martina happy, if I can keep her relaxed, the tennis I don’t even have to worry about,” he said.

“She (Hingis) said you have to have the guts to go after something, and I don’t believe that I personally have the technique or the caliber of talent that Martina has. One thing I do have is the guts. I will go for it. It’s been part of – my whole life is about perseverance, just trying to find a way to succeed. Sometimes the chips are against you; sometimes they fool you,” he said.

That stroke was reminiscent of Sachin Tendulkar’s cut for six over point off Pakistan paceman Shoaib Akhtar in the just the second over of the innings in a crucial ICC Cricket World Cup 2003 match at Centurion. It was a very decisive moment in the game and that one audacious shot established the little master’s superiority that day.

Slipping back a decade further, there was more than a hint of the guts-and-hlory approach when Tendulkar bowled the final over of the Hero Cup semifinal against South Africa with the Proteas needing just six runs for a win. He conceded three runs and secured India a famous victory, showcasing how an audacious decision could swing fortunes.

For some of us from an earlier generation – and younger football fans who spend time watching replays on YouTube or on a sports channel – Aregentina star Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal against England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup was the result of his audacity to try and out-leap goalkeeper Peter Shilton. It was that extra effort at crucial moment that fetched him the goal.

Talking of audacity, there was a hint of Muhammad Ali to the partnership that has won mixed doubles titles in three Grand Slam events when Martina Hingis spoke of how other pairs will have to raise their game to beat Leander and her.

“When we walk on court, I feel like, yeah, no matter – I mean, they will have to beat us and come out with some unbelievable shots like they did in the second set. Our solid base is just so high that they have to over-perform at some point, and that’s what – because our classic shots, our base, is just too good unless they are two champions to pull out some unbelievable shots,” Hingis said.

Leander Paes and Martina Hingis came up with many such shots themselves. But it was Leander’s down-the-line return at 7-7 in the super tie-break that will be embedded as the dominant reflection of audacity and confidence from Louis Armstrong Stadium in New York on Friday night.