The mixed legacy of Leander Paes
His Olympics medal and doubles record stands out. But could he have done more?
Leander Paes’ career, which the Indian tennis legend announced would terminate at the end of the 2020 season, will always be remembered for what could have been, as much as what he did go on to achieve. Would Paes have gone on to add to his eight men’s doubles majors had he buried the hatchet with the most successful of his 130 doubles partners, Mahesh Bhupathi? Could he have used his immeasurable experience to become a father-figure to Indian tennis rather than a divisive one? We’ll never know. But back in 1991, when Paes turned pro, his presence promised a tennis renaissance in India. That renaissance never did fully occur, but his individual career thrived. When it ends, it would have lasted 29 years, with Paes eventually retiring as a 47-year-old.
His legacy will always be his pioneering effort to put Indian tennis on the doubles map — an Indian-record of 18 Grand Slams titles and a world-record 42 wins in the format in the Davis Cup. All that, however, came at the cost of his singles career, which peaked with India’s first-ever individual medal at the Olympics — a bronze in Atlanta in 1996. The Games could well be the allure to further stretch a flailing career (in 2019, he won no titles on the men’s tour), for Tokyo 2020 will be a record eighth Olympics for Paes and his final chance to win India a medal in doubles, something that once seemed a mere formality.
Paes has often stated that nothing has given his life more meaning than representing India. In the country’s colours, he became both a hero and a villain — his presence fragmenting the Indian tennis landscape into camps and factions. Those indiscretions and many controversies will be forgotten once he hangs up his racquet, but Paes’s contribution to the game in India never will.