Forever young

Welcoming a champion... Leander Paes interacts with the media on arrival in Mumbai after winning the doubles title with Radek Stepanek at the U.S. Open.-PTI

Leander Paes has really shown what it takes to stay a champion and turn the staunchest of his critics into adoring fans. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

When you set very high standards, it tends to weigh heavily on you, particularly when you falter, and miss a few steps as age catches up. For some leading sportspersons, such slip-ups rebound in the form of calls from their ardent fans — the ones who cannot tolerate even the slightest of blemishes in their star’s career — to retire.

Yet, nobody dare suggest such an option to Leander Paes. He is 40 and has just won his 14th Grand Slam doubles title. And he still has miles to go and goals to achieve!

It wouldn’t be right to say that Paes has the freedom of choice, as tennis is an individual sport. In that case, why are the fans pleading with Roger Federer, aged 32, to retire even though they have the sneaking fear that Rafael Nadal may overtake the Swiss’ record of 17 Grand Slam singles titles?

In a way, Paes is like Usain Bolt. His strides are longer than the rest in the world. When every sportsman talks about taking one match at a time or one tournament at a time, Paes plans from one Olympics to another.

“I take it Olympic by Olympic basis,” he had replied to a query after winning the U.S. Open doubles final with Radek Stepanek recently.

The Czech concurred: “For the last six, seven months, Lee’s talking about how he is going to get ready for the Olympics in Rio.”

That is the man. It isn’t surprising, for Paes had won the singles bronze medal, against all odds, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and stood on the podium with Andre Agassi and Sergi Bruguera long before he won any of his 53 doubles titles on the professional tour, or the lone singles title in Newport, Rhode Island.

Having grown up seeing his father’s (Vece Paes) hockey bronze medal from the 1972 Olympics in the showcase at home, Paes had wanted one for himself too. He tried hard in the company of Ramesh Krishnan at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; with Mahesh Bhupathi in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000), Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008); with Vishnu Vardhan and Sania Mirza (mixed doubles) in London (2012), but another Olympic medal has proved elusive. Who would team up with him next will be the question when Rio comes around.

For the moment, his focus is on the World Championship. Paes has qualified for the year-end championship for the 14th time. He has been to the final with Bhupathi thrice and with Nenad Zimonjic (Serbia) in 2005.

Winning the World Championship is the target too for Stepanek, who had helped Paes complete a career slam at the Australian Open last year.

“There is one thing we would like to achieve, and that is winning the World Championships at the end of the year. That is what I would like to deliver to his (Paes’) showcase,” said Stepanek, who came back after a spinal surgery this season and, in the company of Paes, spoiled a calendar year Grand Slam for the Bryan twins.

The doubles semi-final at the U.S. Open will stay in memory for long not just for the defeat of the World No. 1 pair of Bob and Mike, but the craft and confidence with which Paes and Stepanek had turned the match around after the Americans had run away with the first set and had broken to draw level at 2-2 in the second.

“Leander really caught fire there. You know, didn’t matter where you served to him, he was putting it down at our feet,” said Mike Bryan, more in admiration than agony.

Bob Bryan was equally appreciative. “Leander, the guy is a legend. He can get hot. He is a very streaky player and obviously has some of the best volleys in the world; a very talented dropshotter. There is a lot of stuff he can hurt you with, he likes the spotlight and he likes those big moments. He definitely rose to the occasion today. We have to tip our hats to those two guys. I don’t think it hurts any more to lose to those guys,” he said.

Coming from the ones who did the ‘Bryan Slam’ by winning four Grand Slams in a row and clinched the London Games gold as well, it does reflect on the quality of Paes’ game.

“He did it for me. Through this year, we both had to handle a lot of adversity,” Paes said, hinting at the strains he was going through in his personal life, and quite upset about celebrating his 40th birthday all alone in Eastbourne without the company of his daughter Aiyana.

“It was cold; it was drizzling; it was wet. I was very lonely and very sad. Radek woke me up and we went for a run on the beach. When you know you have someone in your corner like him, that gives me my magic on the court. That gives me the magic that no matter what happened to my nose, no matter what happened to my backhand or what happens to my serve, I will put my heart and body on the line for him any time,” Paes said, as he slipped into nostalgia at the press conference after his U.S. Open triumph.

Paes has a great attitude that keeps him going, irrespective of the highs and the lows.

“Everyone is looking for the same things, looking for a bit of love, looking for financial stability, looking to wake up every morning to have some sort of passion to execute on a daily life,” Paes said.

He does not let the enormity of the situations to get to him. “Thank God, I didn’t think as much as you think. I am not so smart. For me, it was just about getting first serves in, making returns, keeping my partner happy, and playing hard,” he replied to a long winding question about beating the Bryans at home.

“Radek and myself, we fight for each other. We find a way. Every day we are looking to be our best, and that is the magic,” Paes said, as he captured the essence of his partnership with the Czech.

“It is just about finding the door, a little open. We are hungry. We are very hungry. Especially with the year we have had, we are even more hungry. You leave that door a little ajar . . .,” said Paes, as he recollected how they crashed through the door against the Bryans in a game in which the “margins were very slim”.

Paes is one of the finest students of the game. “I think any student of life looks to improve every day. It doesn’t matter how many Grand Slams you win, doesn’t matter how many Olympics you play. It is about doing something to improve every day,” he said.

In a season in which he has played with seven partners, including Purav Raja and Sanam Singh in the Davis Cup, Leander Paes has really shown what it takes to stay a champion and turn the staunchest of his critics into adoring fans.