20 years on, Leander’s defeat of Sampras still tingles

1 year ago Gulu Ezekiel | TIMESOFINDIA.COM 0

Leander Paes was back in the headlines for winning his record 43rd Davis Cup doubles win in India’s amazing 3-2 turnaround victory over China in the second round Davis Cup zonal tie at Tianjin in April.

Paes, at 44, is a marvel of modern sport and acknowledged worldwide as an all-time tennis doubles great.

However, he also had a great run in singles between 1996—when he stunned the tennis world by claiming the bronze medal in the Atlanta Olympics—and 1998 when he won his sole ATP title, the $275,000 Miller Lite Hall of Fame tournament at Newport, Rhode Island (USA) where he was unseeded.

It was also 20 years ago that Paes achieved his greatest singles victory when he stunned reigning Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras 6-3, 6-4 in the third round of the Pen Pilot International at New Haven, Connecticut (USA) in August 1998, just a month after Newport. That victory catapulted him to a career high 73 in the ATP world rankings, something no Indian singles player has come close to matching in the past two decades.

Sampras had lost his world No 1 ranking just a week earlier and was at No. 2 was he was beaten by Paes, at the time ranked No. 100 in the world. Though he lost in the next round (quarter-finals) to eventual runner-up Goran Ivanisevic, that amazing upset remains the pinnacle of Paes’ singles professional career.

In the earlier rounds at New Haven Paes had beaten two other much higher ranked players, Marc Rosset (Switzerland) and Sergei Bruguera (Spain) also in straight sets. That historic match was also one of the highlights of my nearly four-decade long career as a sports journalist.

At the time I was sports anchor for NDTV’s breakfast show Good Morning India and had just finished the rundown for the sports segment and was about to log off and go downstairs to the changing room when I spotted the agency report.

My first reaction was to leap out of my chair, run round the newsroom pumping my fist, maniacally shouting “Leander has beaten Sampras!; Leander has beaten Sampras!”

The newsroom was in uproar and after speaking to the producer, the sports segment was pushed down as I gathered wits and started the process of trying to get in touch with Leander on the phone in his New Haven hotel room. Remember, mobiles were at the nascent stage then and so was the Net. Since the news broke early in the morning, it was too late for the day’s newspapers too.

It was at 5.30 a.m. that I woke up Leander’s father Dr. Vece Paes in Kolkata and obtained the hotel phone number. After that it was fingers crossed that he would be in his room.

He was and since it was just hours after the match his voice was full of excitement and delighted as I requested him to hold on as I entered the studios. (Note: at that time the show was on Doordarshan and was recorded; it went live a year later).

Sampras had made a rather uncharitable remark that Paes had not won the match, rather he had lost it. Leander guffawed when I asked him for his reaction to the statement and I had my scoop.

Twenty years later the excitement still lingers. For although our tennis stars continue to win doubles titles, there is no thrill quite like beating one of the all time greats of tennis!

(Gulu Ezekiel is an independent sports journalist and author based in New Delhi.)

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