Addressing a group of reporters at the MCA Club here on Friday, the 50-year-old Paes reflected on his three-decade old career which has now brought him to the cusp of another prestigious accolade.
“For me, just the nomination into the International Tennis Hall of Fame is very humbling and of great prestige, because to be the first Indian to be nominated in the player category is special, also to be the first Asian male to be nominated into the player category is phenomenal,” said Paes, as he tried explaining what it would mean to enter a distinguished club of tennis icons from various countries. “There’s some greats there. Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Sir Rod Laver, who is one of my favourites, apart from Borg, McEnroe, the Williams sisters, Navratilova, Hingis and Chris Evert. It’s very special for this young kid from India who grew up playing gully cricket and gully football barefeet, to be (a nominee) among these people who I watched playing on a black and white TV back in the early 80s when I watched Wimbledon for the first time.”
With his 78-year-old father Vece and teenage daughter Aiyana also in attendance, Paes paid tribute to his five fellow nominees in the player category – Carlos Moya, Ana Ivanovic, Flavia Pennetta, and his former mixed and men’s doubles partners, Cara Black and Daniel Nestor.
“We are talking of six nominees who have all won Grand Slams. Cara Black was one of my favourite mixed doubles partners. To play alongside this little firecracker of energy, Cara was one of the greatest doubles players you’ll ever see in your life,” said Paes, who should learn his fate by November 1 through a fan vote as well as an official voting group comprising tennis journalists, historians, and Hall of Famers. Once nominated, a player gets three years to actually be inducted through the voting process. “The unique part is we are not competing against each other, we are supporting each other.”
The 1996 Olympics bronze medal winner said he had also been keeping a close eye on India’s performances at the Asian Games and was pained to hear about Sumit Nagal‘s financial struggles. “I was really surprised that Rohan (Bopanna) and Yuki (Bhambri) lost in that early round, didn’t expect that. But really happy to see Ankita Raina win that first one. She got really unlucky in that match she lost (to Japan’s Haruka Kaji) because she was up two-love in that final set and then finally lost it 6-4.
“I was really hoping Sumit would win that singles match (the quarterfinal he lost to top seed Zhizhen Zhang of China) because he needs some wins. I was quite disheartened to see what he had put the previous day in the papers about the struggle. Obviously one knows the struggle all too well,” Paes said, remembering some of his own hardships early on in his career, from getting mugged in New York while on his way to practice, to having to sleep in a locker room in Germany since he was short on money.
“Today we can sit and say ‘Wow, 18 Grand Slam wins!’ or my Dad and Aiyana can rag me that I’ve lost 19 Grand Slam finals, or we can sit here with Hall of Fame (nomination), appearing in a world record seven Olympics, all those accolades are there, but I remember the other side.”