BENGALURU -- Maybe endings aren't meant to be perfect, after all. They allow for closure, even satiety in an audience and burn out the love between champion and fan too soon. Leander Paes jogged into the media room with his runners-up plaque, a smile pasted across his face, perhaps thinking just that.
On presumably his final match on home soil on Saturday, Paes together with his Australian partner Mathew Ebden, lost 6-0, 6-3 in the Bengaluru Open Challenger tour final against the Indian pair of Purav Raja and Ramkumar Ramanathan, who've already won an incredible three of the four tournaments they've played together. For Paes, it was far from a fitting ending. Inside the first 20 minutes of the match, Paes-Ebden were bageled. "You know, had someone told me that in my final tournament at home I'll be playing the final, I would have taken it," says Paes, the light bouncing off his silver plaque. "It shows I'm going out on a high and I'm still out there as good as the rest. I don't want to be playing when people are telling me, 'You're too old, you can't run, get out!"
At 46, it almost sounds ironic. But for a player who turned pro before even mobiles and internet were around, won India a singles Olympic medal in 1996, brought home 18 Grand Slam titles and lasted all of seven Olympic appearances, the highest ever by a tennis player, it mustn't be inconceivable.
The crowds that turned up to see him through the week were part of the testimony. Challenger tournaments usually have no more than jaded coaches, notebooks in hand, and players resting their racket bags, peeling off their compression socks, smattering the front rows in the otherwise deserted stands. Most of these events aren't ticketed through the week and pretty much anyone who wants to catch a game and a look into the world of tennis journeymen can walk in.
But the weekend in Bengaluru turned out to be quite a full house by Challenger standards. You could spot all kinds of spectators: Paes devotees, ones who'd heard of him but hadn't watched him play in flesh and blood, and the 11-year-old somethings trying to figure who he was. Two roughly belonging to the latter age group, who were sitting right behind me in the B stand, with one who knew who Paes was introducing him to his buddy who didn't, made for interesting eavesdropping. "The guy in blue-and-white T-shirt, that's Paes da. You know he's 46." Followed by a moment of stunned silence, his friend collected himself to respond, "Ada paavi [Are you serious], that's how old my dad is!"
Paes' legacy lies in being able to put a face to the sport for this generation and get people to fill the stands to see just this one guy play. Sport following in India largely centres around its stars, and to many Paes was that one Indian tennis player they wouldn't mind paying to watch. Like they did on Saturday, one among two days that the event was ticketed. He did offer some fleeting delightful glimpses of class through the week, whether it was his kick serve on to the ad court, arching his back, bending his knees and smacking the ball from 7 o' clock to 1 o' clock position and leaping into the air as he did so and the ball landing high on the returner's side loaded with topspin and sidespin, making it on most occasions almost irretrievable or his soft touch volleys and drop shots. On Saturday, though, one didn't get to see much of them.
By the end of the match, you could see Ebden feeling rotten about himself. His two double faults in the second game had rung in the first break of serve early in the match and his volleys kept finding the net. "I wanted to win this for him [Paes]," Ebden, who also played the singles, said. "Through this week, I wasn't thinking about myself at all. It didn't matter to me how I fared."
Paes slapped his partner on the thigh and acquitted him of the guilt. "You know today I didn't dig into my experience. I should have done that. But that didn't happen."
For someone who has announced this year to be his last year on court, every montage of a home crowd must count. Paes drew a cross on his chest before the start of every match, faced the crowds and pumped his fists in the air almost as a way of telling them to amp it up, stopped ahead of serve when he spotted a giant tricolor in the stands behind him to give the young boy holding it up a double nod and a smile, and when his strokes were failing him on Saturday, he found a way to head a ball, which had kissed the tape, away playfully.
The home leg of his final tour done, the end must be now forming shape ahead of him. It must look real, almost an arm's length away.
"Today there was this one moment when I felt emotional," Paes says, welling up, searching for words. "After the match when I was going around signing autographs, this little girl, she may have been four or five, came up to me, laid down a T-shirt that had my face on it before me and said, 'Leander, can you sign this?' For a five-year-old to call me by name and know what I do felt special. Once I'd signed the T-shirt, she turned around and said 'bye'. It hit me that this is it. This is the end."
It didn't matter then that it wasn't the perfect one.