`The desire is going to burn much deeper right now'

Leander Paes takes no half-chances, does not believe in tokenism. His approach to life is an extension of attitude on the tennis court.

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

Leander Paes takes no half-chances, does not believe in tokenism. His approach to life is an extension of attitude on the tennis court. A risk-taker not afraid of making public his goals and then going about accomplishing them, India's only tennis Olympic medallist is looking at competing in his fourth Summer Olympics at a time when people are wondering whether he will return to the game.

He touched down in Mumbai from New York wearing an Athens-2004 T-shirt, a symbolic gesture from a performer who thrives on challenges, in this case getting back into shape after months of hospitalisation, medication and treatment for neurocysticercosis (a type of brain lesion). Golf, gym and the swimming pool are Leander's ways of working out, following medical advice to avoid body-contact sport. He keeps his appointment with Bombay Hospital's noted Dr. Singhal for follow-up.

Clear about 2004's immediate goals — defending the Australian Open mixed doubles title with Martina Navratilova and tuning up with Mahesh Bhupathi for the Athens Olympics men's doubles event — one of India's sporting patriots spoke to The Sportstar at the ITC Maratha Sheraton Hotel. Excerpts:

Question: In times like these when you have come out of a dark tunnel, does life take on a new meaning?

Answer: Very much so, you look at life in totality. Life becomes much clearer when something like this happens. Being an athlete at such a professional level on the world tour, one gets single-minded towards tennis. Hence when you face such a situation, it not only refreshes memory on how fragile life is but also reinstates the importance of maximising each day, accomplishing all the goals, all my desires.

At 30 now, I definitely realise I am blessed to have achieved so much in my sporting field — vis-a-vis playing for my country, coveting my Olympic medal, having one of the best Davis Cup records, hitting a certain benchmark financially, travelling the world. All these were goals as a young child. At the same time there are two tennis goals I am aiming for — be at my fourth Olympics and win four more matches to have the second best Davis Cup record in the world for any player. It is probably going to take me a year, though there is no time restriction really on that.

I have got many things in life which I wish to achieve, not just tennis, but business and other things I want to give back to the sporting fraternity of India, make it easier for athletes to nurture themselves here in India at a facility as close to western standards as possible. I have trained in the western world and know how beneficial that is. Other aspects of life, which interest me, are writing, marketing the image and the man to enhance other opportunities.

Simple pleasures which earlier were taken for granted, like stepping onto a tennis court and feeling the adrenalin flow when putting away a volley at the net may now rank higher up in your list of priorities?

It is something that comes naturally. You can't teach desire, it has to come from within. When something like this (hospitalisation and a tennis break) happens, it rejuvenates me. I have a very high pain threshold, basically a drive to excel in whatever I do. I can work long, potent hours. The desire is going to burn much deeper right now.

You touched down in Mumbai from New York wearing an Athens 2004 T-shirt. Was it a symbolic decision, proof of your mindset that you are looking ahead rather than looking over your shoulder at the past?

Leander Paes with his father Dr. Vece Paes. "I admire my family most, apar from Indian hockey teams," says Leander. -- Pic. SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH-

There is a lot of doubt in people's minds — he is 30 years old, has already achieved so much, is he going to return (to tennis)? That was a very clear-cut, bold statement. I'M BACK.

When you are on court, the tricolour fluttering in the stands or anywhere in your line of vision has brought out the superman in you during Davis Cup play. Indian fans who enjoyed those moments prayed for your well being, when you were undergoing tests at the Orlando hospital.

It is a mutual relationship. I'm completely Indian and proud of it. Regardless of whichever part of world I play or travel, that Indianness in me does show. The background that I come from, the family I belong, all have represented India (mom Jennifer a basketball international, dad Dr. Vece Paes a hockey Olympian). It is the single-most binding factor among my parents and myself. My interaction with fans or the Indian community here and abroad, whether it is the understanding that I am playing for them or their support in my time of need, it is all very heartening.

I take my own decisions so when you are going through all this, this support and encouragement makes me feel (they are saying) like hey! we support you, go ahead lead your life your way, we accept it, understand it, are proud of it. I have never seen it so huge before, it was really special. My way of giving back is to make sure I am fit and ready for the Davis Cup in February, for the Australian Open in January and really ready for the Athens Olympics.

Facing the media at the M. D. Anderson Center in Orlando was unprecedented. What made you take such a drastic step?

The reason I had that media conference was due to an overwhelming desire by the whole community to find out what was going on. A lot of things were being written and spoken of which was tentative, people making their own conclusions about the diagnosis and medication. I was lucky enough in a position to set the word right, obviously in consultation with the doctors. I was surrounded by a wonderful set of doctors who all came together in one voice, speaking the truth. So then we went ahead to set the record straight.

The United States is your tennis base, due to logistics and other reasons. Now that you are back home for a few months of recuperation before hitting the road again, how do you perceive the American experience?

The US has given me an opportunity to hone my skills and talent, for which I am thankful. It is a land of opportunity, be if for a tennis player or in any other profession. The Indian community has thrived on that opportunity. When I go to colleges to speak and interact with students, I find so many Indian students. At the same time, I have never ever forgotten where my roots are, very much in India. Home will always be India.

After 9/11, Indians have faced difficulties due to difference in locals' perception towards immigrants. Now Bobby Jindal, an American-Indian is now Louisiana's governor. How do you explain these two extremes, they hate crimes in the wake of the Twin Tower attacks and a couple of years later an Indian is voted to power?

India could have definitely done a better job in showing the differentiation between us and other nations in this part of the world. The perception is changing now. America is realising that India is not taking part in terrorism, we are defending our territory here. There is a lot more that we as Indians can do to portray our real being, our train of thought, our intention in this region. I feel there is a big opportunity for Indians to gain more ground in America.

Martina Navratilova is waiting for you to return before committing to doubles play, Mahesh Bhupathi visited you in the Orlando hospital. What is it about you that strikes a chord in such diverse tennis partners? Do you sometimes wish you had teamed up with Martina earlier in your career?

My friendships with people are genuine. I am very straight, you know where you stand with me, at the same time I am subtle enough to know if there is something to be shared, it will remain between you and me. I guess it is because of a sense of bonding, mutual respect, and unconditional acceptance. I have an ability to deal with people in any walk of life. Regarding partnering Martina earlier, it would have been a dream. Just imagine, she is 47 years old and still as passionate about tennis. Our combined age is over 75 but still competing with two 16-year-olds, two 19-year-olds in prime of fitness and talent, we are capable of putting it past them.

Martina is not only a spokesperson for tennis, but for all of mankind. She is quite an amazing lady and getting to know her in such close quarters, to share a part of her life is a great experience. The way she handled this whole situation at the US Open was phenomenal.

As much as I tried to convince her over several phone calls to play with another partner and helping organise another partner for her because I wasn't there and it was my responsibility to do so, she just said no. She said 'if I am playing I am playing with you.'

It just goes to show what kind of character the lady has. Right through her whole career she has never been the darling of the crowds, always had to take the long, hard road. Just goes to show the adversity that she faced in her life, right from travelling for hours to reach a tennis court as a child to migrating to the U. S. I am pleased to say that one of my motivations is definitely to get ready for the Australian Open and defend our (mixed doubles) title.

Your tennis bronze at 1996 Atlanta brought joy to Indians the world over. Four years later Karnam Malleshwari lifted the nation's spirits with a medal at Sydney 2000. Whose turn is it now at Athens 2004?

Indian men's hockey, Mahesh and myself in tennis have the opportunity to excel at the Olympics in Athens. Having been one of the formidable doubles teams in the past not so long ago, we definitely are one of the medal prospects. After having said that, I also maintain that we must be thoroughly professional and play a few events during the year and then take that forward, so that we have got match practice by the time Athens arrives to combat the other teams in the world.