For veteran Leander Paes, the team of rookies fighting it out against South Korea are already “winners”, simply because they resisted the “temptation” of joining the rebels.
Paes combined with rookie Purav Raja by winning the doubles rubber to give India the much-needed fillip after both the singles matches were lost on Friday.
With a relieved smile on his face, the 39-year-old lavished praise on his team of first-timers while admonishing the rebel group comprising the likes of Mahesh Bhupathi, Somdev Devvarman and Vishnu Vardhan, who refused to play due to their differences with AITA over governance issues.
“To me, they are already winners to have come out to play here. Every one of them was tempted to not be here but they put country first. I respect every one of them for doing that,” said Paes as his emotions took over him at the post-match press conference.
On a practical note, Paes was candid enough to admit that the team faces an uphill task on Sunday.
“Considering the conditions and how fit the Koreans are, tomorrow we have a tough task. It will be difficult tomorrow. We have got a big job to do. The boys will have to come out and play against a formidable Korean team.”
Paes also opened up about the players’ revolt that forced India to field a depleted team.
“I play for my flag. It is not a player’s prerogative to get involved in governance and selection. We players are supposed to play,” said the only senior player of the Indian team.
“(Before the 2012 Olympics), I was asked who I would like to play with. More specifically, which team would have better chance of winning the medal, I gave my opinion. But in the end, it was not the team that was selected and then the controversy started,” he shot back, when asked why he gave preferences during the pre-Olympic controversy last year.
“But players should not get involved beyond that. It is not their prerogative. They should not get involved in selection and administration,” he maintained.
His passion was there to be seen on the court even though he conceded to presenting his B game against the super-fit Korean duo of Yong-Kyu Lim and debutant Ji Sung Nam today.
Asked about mentoring a team full of rookies, Paes said, “My job is to keep them relaxed. I have been trying to get the boys motivated.”
Reflecting on today’s match, Paes praised Purav for holding his own in the crunch match.
“We just started off really well. Purav has been saying for one week that let’s jump start and finally we did that today. It was a smooth match. The second set was important. To come back from 0-3 down in the tie break, was really good.
Purav played really well and at no point did I feel that he wouldn’t be there. Full kudos to Purav,” he said.
He also lauded non-playing skipper S.P.Misra for keeping the team together.
“With all the stuff that goes on, it is good to have someone like him who can balance a lot of things,” he said.
Talking about his own game today, Paes said, “I was probably at about B solid. On a surface like this, my A game won’t work. I knew that I had to be solid. It helped that Purav and I have been practising together for a long time. That is the essence of success.”
“It was the hard work of last two years. The effort that (coach) Zeeshan (Ali) sir put in and SP uncle put in. But on a slow surface, it has to be the B game,” he said.
Paes said he would like to have a big team at his disposal to ensure that youngsters get their chances.
“I would love to have a big team. These young boys (the current team) have got the experience. No matter who is selected, the game is bigger than all of us. I say bring four playing members and five reserves. I have to compliment AITA from bringing a big band of players in home ties,” he said.
“Yesterday, one guy (Vijayant Malik) was stretchered off the court. He gave everything to the flag. It wasn’t lack of preparation; it was opportunity to play at this stage. You have got to nurture them,” he said.
Meanwhile, revelling in the new-found stardom, Purav said “This is the biggest match of my life by a long way. It’s known that it’s a joy to play with Leander and I felt that. He was definitely the best player on the court. I was under pressure because I thought I would not be able to fulfill his expectations.”
Asked whether he was nervous, Purav said, “Everyone said stay relaxed. But it’s impossible to tell how it feels. I didn’t eat breakfast. To start with, butterflies in stomach is an understatement.”
The 27-year-old will be tying the knot in the next couple of weeks and his excitement knew no bounds.
“I am getting married in two and half week’s time... so no celebration today. I am excited and happy to have got this chance. This is the biggest day of my life,” he said.
Misra, who was the quietest on the dais today, confirmed that Vijayant who had suffered cramps yesterday, would be fit for tomorrow’s reverse singles.
“Ranjit will start, Vijayant has recovered and he would be fit to play tomorrow.”
The exhausted Koreans, meanwhile, felt they still had the upper hand due to yesterday’s wins.
“We are not bothered much. We have won two matches on Friday. We tried our best today and we learnt a lot from this match. Next time, we will win,” said Lim.
Speaking through an interpreter, the Korean duo started laughing when asked about the match.
“We were not burdened even though Leander is very famous here. We tried our best,” said Nam.
Debutant Lim, who is just 20, insisted the nervousness of playing his first Davis Cup settled after he started the match.
“Davis Cup is a big tournament. I was a little nervous before the match but during the match we fought well,” he said.
Asked whether the duo was targeting Purav, Nam said, “Raja is good. I met him a lot during the Futures tournaments. We were not targeting anybody. We were just playing in our style,” he said.