Tennis: Paes' career programmed for perfection: India will need the promise of youth to be fulfilled when the Davis Cup tie against Britain starts today. Simon Jones reports

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The Independent Online
LEANDER PAES may soon be better known in Britain. For Paes, a 19-year-old Indian, is likely to hold the key to this weekend's Davis Cup world group qualifying tie in New Delhi. He will be ready because he has been preparing for moments like this since he was 12.

Paes is the product of a programme which is probably unique in the world. It was started in Madras in 1985 by two of India's greatest players, Vijay and Anand Amritraj, who inspired their country to the 1987 Davis Cup final with Ramesh Krishnan, Paes's partner in a two-man team for this tie.

The brothers chose what they thought were the eight most promising junior players in the country and then worked to develop them specifically for the Davis Cup. At the end of each year of the programme, which is run independently of the Indian authorities, there is an evaluation. Any player who has not worked hard enough or who has not shown sufficient signs of turning potential into performance is replaced: so there are always only eight players involved. Paes joined the programme in 1986 and is the fourth player from it to graduate into Davis Cup.

Paes has a remarkable pedigree. His father played hockey for India at the 1972 Olympics and his mother captained India at basketball. In Calcutta, he captained his school at every sport: hockey, cricket, athletics, swimming, tennis and table tennis.

As the youngest player at the Amritraj academy - he was 12 - he quickly saw what was necessary to become the best in the world. When Rod Laver came to give some coaching clinics, for instance, Paes was transfixed by 'the talent in his hands'.

Joining the Amritraj school at the same time as Paes was a young American coach, David O'Meara. A 23-year-old classics graduate who had briefly played on the satellite tour in Europe, O'Meara had quickly made up his mind that he wanted to be a coach. The Amritraj programme attracted him because of its simplicity.

He said: 'There is no other place in the world that works with just the eight best boys in the country. Usually there are hundreds of boys and many coaches and a very elaborate set-up.'

Paes left the Amritrajs late in 1990, having achieved the goal of representing his country in Davis Cup earlier in the year. At the age of 16, he made a winning doubles debut in the 4-1 defeat of Japan.

That was a momentous year for Paes. He won junior Wimbledon and was ranked the No 1 under-18 player in the world. In 1991 he won the US Open junior title and was runner-up in Australia. At the end of the year, he turned professional with the unabashed ambition of becoming the world No 1.

At No 255 in the world he has a long way to go. But O'Meara, who has remained his coach, had decided that neither of them would worry about results until the end of this year. Their priority is to make technical improvements in Paes's game rather than merely trying to raise his ranking. At the moment O'Meara says: 'I never ask 'Why did you lose?', but 'What did you learn?'

Part of Paes's education has come from his relationship with his Davis Cup colleague, the stylish, gently humorous Krishnan, who this weekend will play the other singles and partner Paes in the doubles after reaching the Olympic quarter-finals with him. During the summer Krishnan toured England and America with O'Meara and Paes, and his experience makes him think that Pat Cash is 'the player Paes should model himself on'.

The example is apt for Paes's greatest asset, apart from his gambler's instinct, is his athleticism. In a match against David Wheaton at Beckenham in June, one point demonstrated his extraordinary potential as he recovered from a Beckeresque diving half-volley to play the cheekiest lob-volley over Wheaton's head, smashing away the resulting lob for a winner.

Today, against Britain, the pressure will be on Paes when he plays the first singles. Yet it will also be a chance to show if he is succeeding in laying the groundwork for an assault on the world's elite. Jeremy Bates, beware.

(Photograph omitted)