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Age has not mellowed down the fighter in Leander Paes [Images] one bit. The 33-year-old beat the rising heat, cramps and a charged up opponent to give India another memorable victory in the Davis Cup.
And sporting rivalries don't get better or bigger than this one. India was playing Davis Cup against Pakistan after 33 years and the passion spilled over during a draining day at the Brabourne stadium.
India's captain Paes, who gave up the fourth set to preserve himself for the last, beat Aqeel Khan 6-4, 7-6(4), 3-6, 0-6, 6-1 amid an electric atmosphere to help India to a 3-2 victory.
Earlier in the morning, Aisam Qureshi outlasted Prakash Amritraj 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in another high intensity encounter to draw Pakistan level in the tie.
Qureshi was left dehydrated by the effort and was rushed to hospital after the match. He returned after treatment later as Paes battled it out for a memorable victory.
Paes's decision to pick himself over India's number two player Rohan Bopanna seemed to have backfired as the veteran player's fitness was tested to the fullest four more than three hours. He suffered cramps in the third set and seemed unable to move by the fourth. He just about threw in the serves and didn't even attempt a shot that wasn't within his reach.
He wasn't at his best in the third set and took a medical break in the fifth set as well, but the sheer will was enough to break Khan's confidence.
Paes, who played his last Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan last year, showed no signs of rust as he walked through the first set with a break in the tenth game.
Khan ran Paes close in the second set, but couldn't stop him from taking it via the tie-breaker at 7-4.
The Indian took a bathroom break after the second set and Khan cut a forlorn figure as he slumped into the chair, towel wrapped around his face. He came out to face Paes in the third set with a glimmer of hope and tears still lingering in his eyes.
The break affected Paes's momentum and he was broken in the fourth game with Pakistan up 3-1. That's where the slump began for India. Paes couldn't get in the returns and his volleys dropped well before the net. Khan saw his chance and seized it.
He ran through Paes in the fourth set and looked good to end the tie in heartbreak for India.
But, as Mahesh Bhupathi [Images] later said, "When the chips are down you can't trust anyone better than Paes to do the job for India in Davis Cup."
The 33-year-old Paes, who has won 78 of his 108 Davis Cup singles ties over 17 years, drew inspiration from those years of hard work for India and turned tables on Aqeel. Apart from the first game of the fifth set, where he faced three break-points, Paes played through the set in a trance. The minute he was able to move and challenge Khan, the Pakistani was held paralysed by the Indian ace's spirit.
The crowd got behind him and even the Indian bench cheered for their captain wildly as he was able to retain the first game of the deciding set and then went onto break Khan to take a 2-0 lead.
In the end, Paes took the deciding set 6-1 to script another memorable Davis Cup win and win the hearts if the Indian crowd all over again.
Aisam Qureshi too good for Amritraj
Qureshi was a distinct class above Amritraj in the first reverse singles as he overcame cramps in another intense performance to draw Pakistan 2-2 level in the tie.
The game started with a flurry of big serves as Amritraj cracked three service winners to win the first game comfortably. Qureshi followed it up by firing three aces in his first service game as the first few games hardly saw any rallies.
Pakistan got into the lead when Qureshi broke Amritraj in the second service game and followed it up with sizzling serves and volleys to race through the set 6-2.
Amritraj was outclassed in the first two sets by the Pakistani, who has a game tailor-made for grass. Though Amritraj tried to attack the net, he was unable to put away the volleys. Qureshi pushed the bar too high and the Indian didn't have any weapons to beat him.
Amritraj was broken in the third game in the second set too and though he saved a set point, Qureshi served out the set with an ace.
Just when it looked like a cakewalk for the 26-year-old from Lahore [Images], Amritraj fed off the massive crowd support to bounce back in the third set. Qureshi served a double fault to hand over the sixth game and Amritraj consolidated the break to go up 5-2.
The Indian youngster hung in by the thread, moved Qureshi round the court and got his volleys working to win the set 6-3.
The players traded breaks in the first couple of games in the fourth set. Qureshi hit a cracking return winner to break Amritraj in the second game as well and go 3-1 into the lead. After the first point in the next game Qureshi went down with cramps and took a medical break.
The heat and humidity in Mumbai was draining for both the players as the Indian camp also tended to Amritraj meticulously. Amritraj had suffered from cramps in his first singles encounter against Aqeel Khan.
But Qureshi came out after the break stronger and broke Amritraj in the eighth game. When Amritraj slammed the ball into the net at match-point, Qureshi went down on his knees, kissed the ground and broke into tears in triumph.
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