Messi's left foot. Nadal's resilience. Going a bit further back, Bolt's loping stride. Each sporting champion has a variety of skills and attributes but there's always one that puts them a cut above the rest. In this series we look at top Indian athletes and identify that one quality that makes them stand out.
This week: Leander Paes and his impossibly quick hands.
Leander Paes is arguably India's greatest tennis player. While his achievements on the singles tour pale in comparison, significantly, to his doubles numbers, he has had some big wins in singles in the first third of his 30-year-long career.
What is it that makes Paes such a good player, and allows him to keep going as he approaches 47, and even contemplate extending his career beyond 2020?
What I like about his game
Paes has some of the best hands in tennis, and they have always stood him in good stead. India's outstanding Davis Cup record through his playing career -- which includes his record doubles wins, a mark surpassed in 2018 -- must be viewed in the context of how lopsided some of those contests were.
India often played their home ties on grass, where the ball traditionally moves quicker than clay or hardcourt surfaces. Paes took on several higher-ranked opponents, and often played a high-risk game that involved rushing the net instinctively, off an unremarkable serve. What worked best in those situations were his hands, neutralizing what must often have looked like an easy pass for the opponent.
Why I like it
Paes is one of very few players in tennis I have seen live, and that's where you get an idea of how good he is with manufacturing angles that only someone in complete control can conceive. It is high risk-high reward at its finest -- a game suited for doubles tennis, where you simply have to be solid at the net to gamble on a few volleys and cut down time on rallies.
One of his big achievements in Indian sports history was breaking a 44-year-old wait for an individual medal at the Olympics. Eventual singles gold medallist Andre Agassi in 1996, where Paes won bronze, wrote this of their meeting in his autobiography Open: "In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He's a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour's quickest hands. Still, he's never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs -- he's the Brad [Gilbert] of Bombay. Then, behind all this junk, he flies to the net, covers so well that it seems to work. After an hour, you feel as if he hasn't hit a ball cleanly -- and yet he's beating you soundly."
Agassi beat Paes twice in quick succession, the other came at the US Open that year, but the style of Paes' play described by his opponent has led to some exquisite moments on the courts, such as the one here or here. Paes was also a natural leader in most doubles teams -- Martina Navratilova mentioned after the pair's second mixed doubles Grand Slam title of 2003, at Wimbledon, that she usually sought out Paes' inputs before serving. This, she reasoned, was to pre-empt what direction Paes was more likely to move in off the play.
Where it came from
Paes had parents who were both sportspersons, with father Vece winning a bronze medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich with the hockey team. He spent most of his childhood in Kolkata, surrounded by a rich culture of sport, and professes to having grown up playing and loving numerous sports, including football, basketball and hockey. Vece mentioned in a Livemint interview in 2015 how as an infant, Paes had balls of different colours, sizes and weights hung on the cradle to help with hand-eye coordination. In addition to that, he was introduced to reflex training at age seven, and speed drills by 10, one of those drills involving dropping a ruler, and catching it before it hits the ground.
He won two junior Slams in 1990 at age 16 and also made his Davis Cup debut that year -- an age where you tend to be carefree and adventurous. The eagerness to play a high-risk game, hands near the net at the first available opportunity, would have come through the early days in the sport, and it has kept him going into his 40s, when he has had to compromise on the speed he used to have around the courts in his early days.
Paes told Times of India in 2018 that he now devotes three hours of his practice time on court as opposed to five earlier -- the remaining two go into his fitness regime, in a bid to stay injury-free.
Where else have I seen it
One of the reasons tennis can be a real spectacle is how effectively players use their hands, even the baseliners who have considerably outnumbered the natural serve-and-volley players in the modern game. My personal favourites when I was growing up were Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras, but one player who has taken this into an art form is Roger Federer.
Federer plays the net as good as anybody in the game has done, but that is not to say his closest rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djovokovic aren't great at it too. There's something extremely satisfying about the deception that comes with a well-executed drop in tennis, whether done at the net or from a little distance beyond that on the court.
The hands, they have it.