The sheer joy of competing and winning

The years of experience have changed Leander Paes’ perspective. “Over the years I have realised that the outcome, no matter how well I play, is never in my hands,” he says in an interview with Nandakumar Marar.

The 2009 U.S. Open doubles victory for Leander Paes, playing in tandem with Lucas Dlouhy, came at a price. He had played through pain for the sixth Grand Slam title of his career, coming back from a set and a break down to defeat Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles.

A week later, Leander was in New York nursing home to treat his injured shoulder and wrist. He was unable to be in Johannesburg where India defeated South Africa 4-1 in a Davis Cup World Group play-off. Leander and Mahesh may team up for India in the Davis Cup World Group tie against Russia.

The joy of playing in Grand Slam events and competing against accomplished doubles pairs is what drives Leander, aged 36. “Winning is an essential part of the joy of competing. Over the years I have realised that the outcome, no matter how well I play, is never in my hands. The trophies are important but they are not the only thing. Pushing my own limits and doing the best I can are also satisfying in their own way,” he says.

Leander credits Martina Navratilova with teaching him how to extend his career and enjoy his game.

In an interview to Sportstar, Leander talks about his telepathy with Mahesh, and his reasons for teaming up with Dlouhy. “My quick success with him surprised me too,” says the Indian.

He also admits his love for New York. “I love New York. It does have this buzz to it and does charge me up. In fact one day I am going there with a couple of friends just to have a long bike ride from one corner of the city to the other. That city is an experience I love to share.”

Excerpts from an e-mail interview:

Question: The joy of competing at the top means more to you than adding trophies to your collection. Can you elaborate?

Answer: I compete to win, there’s no two ways about that. Every time I step on to the court I want to give 100 per cent. I want that the score line should favour me when the match is over, even though it does not always happen that way. Winning is an essential part of the joy of competing.

Does it reflect a gradual change in perspective due to the experiences in your life over the years?

Over the years I have realised that the outcome, no matter how well I play, is never in my hands. I have learnt to revel in the thrill of competition, the rush of a great volley, the satisfaction of executing a new strategy in the heat of a battle and the sheer joy of being out there with a partner that you enjoy playing with. The trophies are important but they are not the only thing. Pushing my own limits and doing the best I can, on a given day, are also satisfying in their own way.

Do you feel any specific aspect of your game getting sharper with experience? 11 Grand Slam finals and six titles are an awesome body of work?

Anticipation is the obvious answer. With the kind of experience I have, I am able to judge just where the opponent is going to place the ball most of the times. The more matches one plays, the more they translate into sharper skills when the chips are down.

Choosing a doubles partner involves ‘gut-feeling’. What made you team up with Lukas Dlouhy when you had many other options on the tour?

Choosing a doubles partner is actually a lot of work. Each potential partner’s pros and cons have to be examined and a studied decision taken based on the inputs from my support staff. Even if the playing styles complement each other, the mental compatibility is even more important. One has to be comfortable with one’s partner, and trust is an important component of a good doubles pair.

There were options, not too many really, as I switched partners in the middle of the season before I and Lukas teamed up. I was looking for someone with younger legs and the hunger for going for the big ones. I knew that if he had the basic skills, with my experience we would be able to forge a solid team. My quick success with him surprised me too.

Telepathy is supposed to be critical for a doubles pair to succeed, like the Bryan brothers for example. Have you felt this while playing with your partner in men’s doubles or mixed doubles?

Most of the so-called telepathy comes from hard work together, and of course experience. The more matches that a pair plays together, the more one is able to predict the partner’s move and adjust accordingly. Mahesh and I have great chemistry on court as we know each other’s game so well and have played together for such a long time. With Martina too there was great chemistry.

Playing alongside Martina Navratilova (the Leander-Martina combine won the Australian Open and Wimbledon mixed doubles titles in 2003) and Mahesh Bhupathi, the joy of competing and winning touched high levels…

Martina added years to my legs. She taught me how to preserve my body and enjoy my tennis even when the muscles no longer have the alacrity of the past. She was a great motivator and I learnt so much from her.

She reinvigorated the competitive zeal in me and was an absolute delight to have around. Mahesh and I did what no Indian pair had ever achieved. We dominated the world in 1999. That was an unforgettable year.

Two Indians playing against each other in the 2009 U.S. Open men’s doubles final — did you feel any change in the crowd response compared with earlier matches like the semifinal against the Bryan brothers?

The Indians in the crowd were definitely not cheering for the Bryans! I think for most of them, the men’s doubles final was a win-win situation. No matter who won, the trophy would be going home to India after all.