For Leander Paes, age is just a number. At a time when most of his contemporaries have hung up their boots and are exploring other avenues of life, Paes, 46, still wants to dominate the tennis court. After all, it’s the ‘passion for the game’ that keeps him going.
In his long and illustrious career, Paes has bagged 18 Grand Slams and an Olympic medal at the Atlanta Games in 1996. He is also the most successful doubles player in Davis Cup history — with 43 wins. Still, he is not ready to rest on his laurels.
Come 2020, Paes will complete 30 years in professional tennis. As he reaches this milestone, he also makes it clear that the thought of hanging up the racquet hasn’t crossed his mind yet.
“I am grateful to the game that has given me every thing — it has inspired me to live on,” he says.
In a chat with Sportstar , he talks about his career, Indian tennis and more…
Where do you see Indian tennis today?
We have a lot of talent in our country in tennis. If you look at the young guys — Ramkumar (Ramanathan), Prajnesh (Gunneswaran), Sumit Nagal, Ankita (Raina), Sasi Kumar (Mukund) — they are all working so hard. I can name 10 other athletes who have a lot of talent. You look at the doubles boys, Jeevan (Nedunchezhiyan), Divij (Sharan), Purav (Raja), Vishnu (Vardhan), (Sriram) Balaji — all of them work so hard to hone their skills, travelling the world, paying for everything themselves.
(They are) just out there trying to be the best they can be, trying to find a way to succeed. I have tremendous respect for them because of how hard they are working to excel in our sport. But that said, I am also a bit concerned about how tennis is going in India.
Earlier, tennis used to very clearly be the number two sport in India after cricket. Even though hockey was the national sport, I felt tennis was really up there. But now if you look at the way other sports are going, Olympic medals are being won in many other sports. Now there are badminton players (Saina Nehwal, P. V. Sindhu).
To me, (Pullela) Gopichand is one of the best coaches in the country today. What he has been able to do to transform badminton, is fantastic.
Not only did he churn out a medal with Saina, the very next Olympics he churned out a medal with Sindhu. Also, for some time, we had the number one men’s player in the game, Sri (Kidambi Srikanth). That’s phenomenal!
If you look at the leagues in India, there is the Pro Kabaddi League, ISL, table tennis. Then there are the boxers, the shooters, the wrestlers — sport in India has grown so much. And I would love to see tennis keep growing and the numbers growing too.
After cricket, tennis has produced the most number of legends. How do we keep the momentum? Where are we lacking?
When you look at all sports, especially cricket, you see what an amazing job the BCCI does, and also what an amazing job the IPL has done to popularise the game.
The young cricketers are playing with international stars, rubbing shoulders with them. Cricket is growing continuously. If you look at football, what Reliance has done with ISL is phenomenal — just to get that many world stars to play with Indian players! That’s the reason football players are doing so well now. Sunil Chhetri has done a phenomenal job, his whole career has blossomed with this. You look at table tennis, again Reliance has picked up the sport and promoted it. Look at kabaddi, one of the best leagues in the country today, you see what Star has done in promoting it, positioning it and marketing it.
So, behind every one of these sports, you have seen a big organisation or association coming in and doing great work. In tennis, I don’t see that. I’m a bit concerned about that, despite it being such a global sport. To me, it is probably one of the biggest sports in the world.
Do you think corporates need to come and invest more in tennis infrastructure?
The infrastructure has increased multiple folds in various sports. When I was growing up there were no hard courts and the floodlights were not that great. Today, you have clay courts, grass courts, synthetic turfs, astro turfs, bouncy pitches, mini pitches. You’ve got all weather soccer fields with astro turf, gymnasiums have cropped up all over, fitness has become a mantra now. But I still feel that there is a deep need to recognise talent and to teach that talent to become world champions. I think the knowhow to build champions has not grown that much. I think that knowhow to build champions is what the need of the day is. In doing so, both the associations and the athletes must come together to make sure the health of the sport improves.
What do you think are the structural changes required for the development of the sport?
First the base has to be worked on to make sure every kid has access to basic physical and mental fitness.
In this modern age, we must create opportunities to develop athletes at a young age and then when the child is 12 to 14 years old, he/she can decide which sport he/she will focus on. At the moment, we are losing our athletes to smart gadgets, whether it is mobile phones, computers, ipads or video games.
To me, the bigger issue is that India is the number one country in the world for obesity and diabetes so the priority to play sports should first be for good health.
To enhance one’s physical and mental attributes to be healthy is important. Not everybody can be (Sachin) Tendulkar, (MS) Dhoni, (Roger) Federer, (Lewis) Hamilton or (Tiger) Woods, but to have a healthy community is very important, and to me sport is the vehicle. We Indians are very intellectual and to be a healthy community — both physically and mentally — is very important and that can only happen through sports.
Let’s talk a bit about international tennis. You and Roger Federer have been playing for years and have proven that age is just a number. He is 38. What keeps you guys going?
Passion! When I started playing I had great role models. In my house, I had my mom (Jennifer Paes) and dad (Dr. Vece Paes) who were both phenomenal athletes, very passionate about their sports and playing for the flag. They played at a time when commerce was not a relevant reason to play sports. They played because they wanted to make sure that the Indian flag was flying high on international shores.
So, I grew up with that around me. So, it’s no wonder that I hold my Olympic medal in singles in Atlanta 1996 and my Davis Cup World record dearest to me. To emulate his father in winning an Olympic medal is the greatest joy a son can have!
After I won in Atlanta, I had to reinvent myself and my goals to win Grand Slams. My focus moved towards doubles as I chose an Indian partner (Mahesh Bhupathi). I wanted to prove that we, Indians, could be world champions.
After years of hard work, we were able to win Wimbledon, Roland Garros and subsequently be No.1 in the world. After my initial Grand Slam wins, I had to reinvent all over again to covet all four Grand Slams in both men’s doubles and mixed doubles.
So, all this reinvention is something that we all have tried to do, be it Federer, (Rafael) Nadal, Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, Billie Jean King or Andre Agassi. I have had some great role models in terms of partners and I have tried to emulate them.
You have had successful partnerships with the two Martinas — Navratilova and Hingis. What have you learned from those associations?
I am blessed to have had both the Martinas as my partners. From Navratilova, I learned about the tricks of longevity in keeping good health, having a specific diet, focusing on mental health and a quality lifestyle.
A simple fact is that 99 per cent of all tennis tournaments are played outside India, and as a professional athlete, I have to perform at my best, always playing away from my home environment.
The culture, climate, food, playing surfaces, environment are the adversities I have to overcome. The enormous amount of travel and loneliness are parts of individual sport which one has to deal with.
You have partnered different players from different countries. How have those partnerships helped you?
I have had 131-plus men’s doubles partners and 16-plus mixed doubles partners and the most important ingredient to success with each of these partners was to mould myself around their skillsets and personalities.
I enjoy reinventing myself around my partners as it helps me to be a student of life and my craft.
Coming back to your earlier question, Martina Hingis is like a sister to me. We are that close. We discuss everything. We see each other through ups and downs, on and off the court. We support each other unconditionally. And as an athlete and a tennis player, she has taught me a lot about technique, especially on the return of serve. Her backhand and her footwork are supreme. The skills were instilled in Hingis by her mother and for me, a tennis player who does not have great technique, I could learn a lot from her.
That’s the reason we both were such a success because we would enjoy our practice sessions so much that they would go on for hours.
The perfection that we tried to master in practice would percolate into our matches, which helped us find a way through some sub-situations against our opponents.
You often speak about longevity. Even at 46, you manage to play regularly…
I attribute this longevity to my amazing team — my father as my doctor and mentor, my tennis coach who has been with me for 20 years, my fitness coach who has been with me for 25 years.
I also have a travelling companion who has been with me for 29 years, and a managing team which has looked after me for 25 years. So, my team has done a phenomenal job to keep reinventing my lifestyle, training regime, my passion and also to be with me and invest in the happiness of the team so that we are all successful.
I attribute a lot of my Grand Slam wins to the amazing team I have had and I am very grateful.
If you could take us through your fitness regime…
At 46, my fitness and recovery regime is so extensive that it’s mind-boggling. This morning, I have already done hours of cardio, core, stretching, Pilates, yoga, visualisation and the day is only half done. I have still got some more cardio, yoga and then recovery to do.
As for tennis, the muscle memory is already there from the years of practice and training and now, my tennis sessions are much more specific to prevent more wear and tear on my muscles and tendons.
No more do I go out there and hit a hundred serves in a session. I hit 25 to 30 serves and make sure each one is perfect.
I am very blessed to have a father who is an Olympic champion as well as a doctor, who has looked after me for so many years. His understanding of my body, my mind and my journey, all that I have been through and the unconditional love, support and guidance to reinvent myself and my training systems have enabled me to have such a long career.
Coming back to Indian tennis, the lack of singles champions hurts. Why is it so?
Our Indian players are working very hard. Some train in Europe, some in America and watching these youngsters putting so much effort into their careers is wonderful.
Most of our tennis champions have been individuals or individual families that have persevered to make their children successful.
But why are they not more consistent?
I think tennis is immensely competitive. The competition in tennis comes firstly from the supreme globalisation of the sport that is played by athletes from Christchurch in New Zealand to Machu Pichu in Peru. The physical attributes of the athletes in tennis and mental aptitude for fierce competition is improving so fast that to win a Grand Slam nowadays takes the mammoth effort of a full team.
Hence, I am very happy that our youngsters are working so hard to excel.
You are one of the most successful players of our times. Do you, at times, regret that your singles career would have been far more glittering if you had not focused on doubles?
I think my doubles and mixed doubles results sometimes overshadow my singles. Even though I have won 18 of my 36 Grand Slam finals, my Olympic singles medal and Davis Cup record along with longevity in Olympics participation stand out more in my mind. Beating Pete Sampras in the Pilot Pen International championships in New Haven, Connecticut, and beating Roger Federer in Indian Wells were satisfying. It doesn’t surprise me because when you do so much in doubles and mixed doubles on the Grand Slam stage, it takes precedence.
With the decision review system coming in, the game has changed immensely. If you could say something about that…
With all this modern technology coming in, whether it’s hawk-eye, goal-line reviews, third umpires, and scoring systems, I think as the times are changing you have to evolve with the times, otherwise you get left behind. I think the true greatness of longevity of results is the ability to mentally adapt to the modernisation of sport and life. To have that flexibility is important.
On the personal front, you have been serving the game for almost three decades. Most of your contemporaries have hung up their boots. In a country that swears by sports, do you think that your fraternity has not given you as much as you deserved in terms of respect and recognition?
No, not at all. I find that in life, the reverence that I get is very different from frenzy. I think tennis being such an elite sport that it was, my job was to make it a household sport and I did a good job. But the reverence that I gained there was phenomenal... over five generations, from the grandparents, parents who watched me play and our generation who grew up with me. The respect that I get from (people) is so heartwarming and humbling. The real situation is as I am phasing out with tennis, there are approximately 745 million youngsters under the age of 25 and there is a huge opportunity to use sports to build a healthier race, not just to produce 10 Olympic champions or 10 Grand Slam winners or champions in cricket, hockey or badminton. We should recreate that culture that our parents taught us that it was cool to play sports. And, it’s cool to go out there and excel as a physical athlete. That’s the charm.
You are an inspiration to the youngsters because you are somebody who has overcome so many negative things personally and professionally. How did you keep yourself motivated? How did you bounce back?
I think champions have a very special mental capacity and in my journey from being a young boy to growing up and learning the skills of being a champion, there is so much that you learn, so much you have to handle and experience like staying power, patience and the ability to ride the tide. One needs to relax, keep improving, keep learning as a student and when the tide’s going well that’s when you attack to look to achieve and create greatness. I think that one of the greatest abilities of a human being — like Sylvester Stallone said, “It is not about how hard you hit, but it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep falling down and yet stand up, dust yourself off and keep moving forward. That’s how champions are born.” That’s the essence of life.
The ride is never going to be smooth, it’s about how many times you can pick yourself off the floor after falling and have that mental aptitude and patience to still achieve greatness. Also, greatness, not just as an athlete but even as a human being — to handle adversity away from my tennis stadium — is to go for what’s right. We live our lives and with a bit of luck, we live to be 100 years old. But what one does on this planet, what example one sets in your lifetime, resonates and goes beyond your time. The example you set and the fight for goodness, rightness, is very important. That takes a champion quality too, not be swayed by all the nonsense that’s there in the world.
Where do you see yourself in the next few years? Has hanging up the racquet crossed your mind?
Not yet. In 2003 when I had a tumour in my head and I was dealing with that, people thought I was done then, I thought I was done then, too. But I got a new lease of life and came back and played. There were several times in my career when I thought enough’s enough, I have done it all and achieved it all, but I have also seen how there’s another goal to achieve. I believe it’s always about raising the bar and after a while, when you have won everything and there doesn’t seem to be anything else to achieve, you play for happiness, because that’s how it started. I started out playing in Kolkata, at my school — La Martiniere for boys. I played in the Kolkata maidans and at the CC&FC grounds with my dad, because it gave me immense joy spending time with him. And, I am grateful to the game that has given me everything — it has inspired me to live on!
Now, the BCCI has a president in Sourav Ganguly — who has been a former India captain. BCCI is also involving cricketers in various roles. At a time when the Supreme Court has asked the players to be involved in sports federations, do you think that the same should happen with tennis?
Dada (Ganguly) is a great candidate as the president of the BCCI because firstly he is an athlete, who knows the nuances of what it takes to run the sport, both on and off the field. He has got his head on his shoulders. It’s wonderful to see an athlete come into administration.
Just look at what amazing opportunities the BCCI has given their past athletes — not only do they have a pension system for the athletes for their services to the country, they also create jobs. During IPL or even Test matches, I see past cricketers as umpires. I see Ravi Shastri doing a phenomenal job. I see Rahul Dravid, one of the athletes I respect, doing a phenomenal job. To me, Rahul is one of the best coaches across sport in our country. The way Rahul does his job is the reason why the junior team is the best in the world and he is producing young cricketers at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, where he is the director of cricket.
Cricket as a whole does such a great job of creating opportunities to integrate their past champions who are wanting to give something back to the game.
I don’t see that in tennis right now and I think something should be done about that. To integrate past champions to come in and make a difference and work together to make sure that the health of the sport is sound. That is very important.
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