‘I am particularly proud to have won titles in three different decades’

Sergi Bruguera of Spain (silver), Andre Agassi of the United States (gold) and Leander Paes of India (bronze) during the presentation ceremony at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. "My biggest title, the Olympic bronze," says Paes.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY Sergi Bruguera of Spain (silver), Andre Agassi of the United States (gold) and Leander Paes of India (bronze) during the presentation ceremony at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. "My biggest title, the Olympic bronze," says Paes.

“I am very clear about what my strengths are. So I need the other player to excel in areas where I am weaker,” says Leander Paes in this chat with N. Sudarshan.

It’s November. That time of the year when the tennis season winds down and the focus is on one single marquee event in London, the ATP World Tour Finals, featuring eight best singles and doubles players in the world. In 2014, it had added significance. A 33-year-old Swiss, in the autumn of his career, was chasing the World No. 1 ranking. In times when sport is almost always played at the extremes of physical and mental capabilities, it was stunning.

But for Leander Paes, another of those who has been presumed by many to be in his autumn for a decade now only to be proved wrong each single time, it was a peculiar state. Not since 2005 has he missed his date with the World Tour Finals. And not since 2007 has a year passed without him being in a single Grand Slam final.

“It has been a very tough year,” says the 41-year-old in chat with Sportstar. “Both on and off the court. But sometimes champions just have to persevere, find a way to keeps things positive and wait.”

An injury layoff at the start of the year and a custody battle for his daughter ensured that he dropped to 35 in the rankings, his worst in eleven years, after having started the year at seven. His year-end ranking is now 29.

But Paes, like many successful sportsmen, rarely let a trifling number get in his way. Be those many Slam victories, or the memorable Davis Cup wins, or his age, nothing seems to have got to him. But in the twilight of sporting career, a number isn’t just a mere number. It has a back-story to it.

If he dropped to the thirties in the rankings, mental stress and physical demands surely played a part. And when you are in the fourth decade of your life, the recovery is all the more difficult.

“There have been so many things to take care of,” he says. “But the hard work, the effort, the concentration levels et al have stayed the same. These hold true for any career.”

This desire to excel against all odds is perhaps the single most important thing that has held his career together for the last two and half decades. Its importance grows manifold when one takes into account the humungous change tennis has undergone.

“Supreme physical fitness is a perquisite,” he says. “Every player can run for hours. But alongside, the mental game has become very important. Especially with respect to how you anticipate things. The help of coaches is crucial. They are constantly scouting players and opponents, their areas of improvements among others. So tennis as a sport has become highly competitive.”

Like Miroslav Klose in football, Paes can be seen as a bridge between the current and the bygone eras. Tennis was once a fast, touch based game. Now, more often than not, it is a marathon baseline slugfest. Akin to football, it is more tactical and technical than ever before. As a result, Paes, near the turn of the century, shifted completely to doubles from singles, except in Davis Cup.

“After I won the Olympic bronze in 1996, then the Asian games medal, (my Davis Cup singles record was very good then), I found that the game had evolved. The courts slowed and balls became heavier. For a serve-and-volley player like me, I had to choose. I couldn’t have played both because the duration of a singles matches were so much that I had no energy left for doubles. By playing doubles I realised I could play for really long.”

To stretch a career is every sportsman’s want, but not for everybody do things fall in place. For this Paes has his backroom team to thank.

“I am very lucky to have a great team. Rick Leach my coach has been there for 19 years. He has won Grand Slams. My fitness trainer, Dave Herman, has been with me for 23 years. My travelling companion and yoga master Sanjay Singh for 24 years. And finally my father Vece Paes, has been my doctor my whole life. These guys know me inside out.”

Set against this stability and continuity are his on court experiments with 98 doubles partners and 23 mixed-doubles partners. But instances of these different concoctions not coming out well have, quite miraculously, been rare.

“I am very clear about what my strengths are,” he says when asked what he looks for in his partner. “So I need the other player to excel in areas where I am weaker. The both of us need to complement each other so that there are no holes in the game. I usually look for tall, big servers, adept at the baseline. Also a good communicator and one with a relaxed personality.”

Picking the best among these many team-mates is indeed tough. But one with whom Paes shares a special bond, is the legendary Martina Navratilova, with whom he played mixed-doubles for three years from 2003 to 2005 and won two Slams.

“Martina has been one of my closest confidants and one of my best friends. Alongside being the player she was with her history, titles and versatility for so many decades, she has been a champion of life. A champion throughout.”

In fact, in 2003, when Paes partnered Navratilova to the title at the Australian Open, she became the oldest female Grand Slam winner at 46. She then went on to win the U.S. Open mixed doubles in 2006. And not to be left behind, Paes got his own ‘oldest-ever’ record. At the 2013 U. S. Open, in the company of Radek Stepanek, he became the oldest male Grand Slam winner at 40.

“More than that, I am particularly proud to have won titles in three different decades. It’s great to keep adding to a list of your victories.”

But for many back home, Paes’ identity has always been that of the torch-bearer of the Indian Davis Cup dreams. When he and Rohan Bopanna combined to win the doubles rubber against Serbia recently, which he termed one of his “best-ever”, it was his 41st doubles win in the competition. No other active player has more. Also he ranks only below Italian Nicola Pietrangeli, who has 42 wins. Paes also has the most number of wins (doubles & singles combined) among active players at 89.

It was more than a decade back when an acclaimed writer wrote in these very columns that “In the pantheon of Indian sport, the Gavaskars, Tendulkars, Krishnans and Anands may demand — and deserve too — more prominent places than Paes, but no man who has ever played for India can claim to have done so with greater pride and commitment and with a bigger heart than India's Davis Cup hero.”

In the days since then, he has won 10 majors and as recently as September, when he won the doubles title at the Malaysian Open, he created a record for having won at least a title every year since 1997.

Yet, when he says “my biggest title, the Olympic bronze,” it shows where his heart lies. His patriotic zeal remains unparalleled as he marches towards the 2016 Rio Olympics which can make him the only living athlete to compete in seven Olympics.