Indian tennis players may have failed to impress at the Australian Open, but Leander Paes believes they deserve respect for the way they handled COVID-19 and other challenges to participate in the event.
The Indian contingent at this year's Australian Open - Sumit Nagal (men's singles), Ankita Raina (women's doubles), Divij Sharan (men's doubles) and Rohan Bopanna (men's and mixed doubles) - were unable to progress beyond the first round in Melbourne.
Leander Paes, though, looked beyond the results to understand exactly how much his Indian tennis peers achieved Down Under this year.
“Playing in a bio bubble is tricky. Even if you look at the results of all the players, not just Indians, the performance hasn’t quite been the same as pre-COVID times. We have all had to find a way to reinvent ourselves,” Leander Paes told the Olympic Channel.
“The bubble, though necessary, is a huge obstacle to finding peak performance levels. I believe most of the players in Australia could not even leave their room for 14 days due to quarantine protocols," he added.
Leander Paes also picked out youngster Sumit Nagal and Ankita Raina, both of whom made their Australian Open debuts in this edition, for special praise.
“Just the fact that Ankita Raina and Sumit Nagal made it to the main draw of the Australian Open shows years of perseverance and commitment from them,” Leander stated.
This was also Ankita Raina's maiden Grand Slam.
Trying to illustrate just how overwhelming Ankita’s experience would have been, Leander Paes recollected his first experience of a Grand Slam - the 1989 Australian Open as a junior player.
“As a 15-year-old, to go and play at the Australian Open was hugely daunting. The size of the western tennis athletes is huge," Leander remembered.
“Ankita Raina, who is a phenomenal and hard-working athlete by Indian standards, goes out there and looks across the net to see someone like a Serena Williams or a Garbiñe Muguruza, who have a tremendous support system behind them. It can be a bit overwhelming,” he added.
Explaining why he opted to sit out of the Australian Open, Leander Paes revealed, “I lost several close family friends because of COVID-19. It’s very close to home for many of us. It’s part of the reason why I chose not to go to Australia. It was a very tough call.”
The 1996 Atlanta Olympics bronze medallist also tipped his hat to every Indian tennis player who have been braving the odds to pursue their careers in these testing times.
“The cost that it takes to travel the world and play tennis is very, very high. So, I come from a place of tremendous respect for all these players. They are going out there and persevering against the odds,” Leander pointed out.