This might just be Leander Paes’ last Chennai Open. A few days ago, the veteran of 26 illustrious years on tour hinted at retirement, although he later backtracked.
On the night of his first round match at the SDAT Tennis Stadium, Paes and partner Andre Sa were to compete against a pair the 43-year-old would have known a lot about. The duo of Divij Sharan, aged 30, and Purav Raja, 31, have long been involved in Indian tennis, but not quite at the same level as the likes of Paes himself.
But they have risen. Significantly. Both in skill and stature. In fact, their world ranking isn’t too far off Paes’ 59 – Sharan is 63 and Raja 65. And it showed, as the pair cruised past third-seeded Paes and Sa 6-4, 6-4 on Wednesday evening. Paes, the eternal crowd favourite here (and record six-time winner), received passionate support, but the fans were also warming up to the old-school chip-and-charge game of Sharan-Raja.
It’s a level of form that has continued since Sharan and Raja reunited in April 2016. Earlier, they competed in the lower echelons of the sport without gaining much success. A revolving door of partners – which has become synonymous with the doubles game – didn’t reap rewards either. Until they decided to renew their partnership, which they first forged in 2013. And it was together in 2016 that the pair found their greatest success on tour, winning four Challengers and an ATP 250 event.
“We’ve tried the other bit as well (playing with other partners). It’s not that we got lucky with anybody else. So something must be going well when we played together,” says Sharan.
The win in Los Cabos, Mexico, was the second ATP win in their respective careers. The first came together as well, in 2013 at the Bogota Open in Colombia. But now the pair boasts a greater sense of the game. “We have more experience now compared to what we had together a few years ago. There is an understanding of who is feeling good at a particular point. That makes a difference,” states Raja. It also helps that Sharan is left-handed and Raja right-handed, an ideal combination for doubles.
On court, their personalities are opposite. Sharan is a hard-runner while Raja stays at the net to finish off points. “I talk a lot. But he talks more sense,” Raja adds. Forgoing the trend of constantly switching partners has granted them a benefit that was only last seen in the days of the ‘Woodies’ (Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde), Daniel Nester and Mark Knowles, the Bryan brothers, and even the Bhupathi-Paes combo. “When you’re with the same partner, you build up an understanding. And it helps especially when one player starts slow. The understanding is there so you can always win the match,” says Sharan.
There’s also a sense of security with each other. “Before I was playing with different guys, not knowing what’s going to happen. The doubt was there. But it’s a very different feeling now (with Purav). Winning or losing is not in the head because there is that sense of security to let you do what you are doing,” Sharan adds. When the pair got together in April, Sharan was ranked 143 and Raja 121.
Their success has been noticed and appreciated by AITA’s selection committee as well. Enough for Sharan to get a call-up for the Davis Cup tie against Spain last September. But Sharan declined the offer since he wasn’t assured a position among the starting four that already had Saketh Myneni, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Sumit Nagal and Paes. “For him, if he’s not going to be in the playing four, he’d rather go out and play an ATP tournament to improve his ranking, which is totally understandable,” explains Zeeshan Ali, coach of the Davis Cup team.
Instead of playing the night-tie in New Delhi, Sharan partnered Raja to a quarterfinal finish at the Szczecin Challenger in Poland.
The improvement on tour still keeps them in contention for future Davis Cup call-ups; especially since Paes’ recent talk of retirement has thrown open the idea that his involvement in the upcoming tie against New Zealand in February may be his last. Still, the AITA’s idea of picking three singles players and one doubles player for each forthcoming round presents its own twist for the pair. “The thing is that you can’t call Divij and not call Purav, or vice versa. They deserve to be a part of the team for what they have done in 2016. If we were to choose two singles and two doubles, these guys would be very prominent,” asserts Ali.
The chemistry on court has also made room for a harmonious relationship off it. The tennis tour is one that demands the best of time management skills. Still, they manage to make time for a few off-court antics – a jamming session with Raja’s ukulele being their favourite. “Divij sings well, my wife sings well. So we have a few jam sessions sometimes. It’s not world-class stuff, but it keeps us occupied for a few hours when we’re on tour,” says Raja.
The stringed instrument has been a welcome addition to their luggage. Along with their racquets, and a sturdy partnership.