Indian tennis legend and Olympic medallist Leander Paes spoke about creating future Olympic champions at the Sportstar East Sports Conclave 2023 on Monday. The session was moderated by The Hindu Sports Editor, K.C. Vijaya Kumar.
Paes said he was lucky to belong to a family of sportspersons (father: Dr. Vece Paes, hockey; mother: Jennifer Paes, basketball) for which he never had to face any major roadblock when he was just starting out. “Coming from India, with such a rich heritage, we should be aware of the legacy we are born with - especially in a State like West Bengal. The environment of the home was very supportive and the purpose of my life was decided at a very young age due to the help of my parents,” said Paes.
The Olympic bronze medallist had heroes to look up to, too. “I was lucky I had heroes to look up to. Chuni Goswami, Premjit Lall, Jaidip Mukerjea. I have immense respect for Jaidip sir’s father because he used to give me tips every day. How to keep my head still and so on.”
Talking about his experiences, growing up in the state of Bengal, the tennis ace said, ”How lucky one was to be brought up in Bengal. How many young kids have the opportunity to be part of clubs? It is expensive. To have a Shivaji Park in Bombay or the Maidan in Kolkata is a huge blessing right in the heart of the city.
Paes joked that he probably could have been a better footballer than he had been as a tennis player. “I used to sleep with my football and polish my boots. No one could touch them. When you have Bengali roots from your mum’s side and Goan roots from your dad’s, it was football, football and football.”
And a conversation on football isn’t ever complete without mentioning the classic Asian rivalry. “Even if you want to talk about the Indian Super League (ISL) in general, the rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan is iconic. But when it comes to football, the whole country is watching, the stadium is packed,” Paes said.
Paes went on to make a tongue-in-cheek comment about his height as well. “In the 1980s, the average height of a tennis player was 6 feet 1 inch. In the 1990s, it was 6’2’‘ and nowadays it is 6’3’‘. I am 5’10’‘ on a good day.”
Commercialisation of tennis
Paes said that sponsorships come only when a player reaches a certain stage. “In the 90s, tennis was becoming more commercialised. There was no real corporate sponsorship or government support. But what about the players who are growing... the unknown players,” Paes asked.
“I think as a country, we have not been able to hit even 50 percent of our sporting talent. Most of it is concentrated in the rural areas,” said Paes, highlighting the sporting potential of India and added that real growth happens at the grassroots.
Sports and mental health
Paes said that in a country like India, which is plagued with mental health issues and diseases like obesity, sports can be the answer to a healthy way of life. “Sports is not just about winning medals. It is not always about the Grand Slams. It is a way to maintain a healthy balance in life. We are No. 1 in the world in obesity [sic], diabetes [sic] and mental illness. When you play a sport, it makes you feel good. Going out there and burning calories not only makes you look good but also makes you healthy,” said Paes.
“The amount of pressure that youngsters are subject to these days. I feel sorry for the pressure they are feeling due to this instant gratification.”
Talking about dealing with failures, Paes said, ”It is not about how you win or lose. It is about how you rebound after a loss. You don’t worry about the exam you failed in, you come back from that.”
Paes said that despite the vast scope that lies in India, the country loses a lot of athletes in the transition from the junior to senior level. “In India, a tropical country, it rains for almost 3.5 months a year. But still, there is no indoor court here. So, you hardly have any tennis over that period.”
Paes praised the functioning of professional cricket in India. “The Board of Control for Cricket in India is a body that should be emulated by all sports... I think we should all learn from cricket and how the cricketers have been looked after be it retired cricketers coming back to governance. Associations should have a healthy blend of corporate people, legal people and athletes.”
The Conclave was held in association with Hero We Care - a Hero Motocorp CSR Initiative, Indian Oil, Shiv-Naresh, Rau’s IAS Study Circle, Pinnacle Infotech, Maithan Alloys Ltd, Merlin Group, SRMB, Techno India Group’s Sister Nivedita University, Indian Bank and Meghbela Broadband.