“For us, this is perhaps our first interview as father-son Olympic medal winners. There are not too many father-son athletes in the world who have won Olympic medals, am I right?” asked Leander Paes. Yes, he was right.
Father and son winning medals at the Olympics is not a quotidian occurrence. Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn won six medals at three Olympics (1908 London, 1912 Stockholm and 1920 Antwerp), while his son, Alfred, also a shooter, won nine medals in four Olympics (1908, 1912, 1920 and 1924 Paris). Many years later, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, William Earl Buchan of the United States won a gold medal in the Star Class of sailing, while his son Carl emerged victor in the Flying Dutchman class.
From India, the legendary Dhyan Chand (1928 Amsterdam – gold, 1932 Los Angeles – gold, and 1936 Berlin – gold) and his son Ashok Kumar (1972 Munich – bronze), and Ahmed Sher Khan (1936) and his son Aslam Sher Khan (1972) have won medals in hockey at the Olympics. However, in the case of Dr. Vece Paes and his son Leander Paes, they were from different sport.
Vece was the member of the Indian hockey team that won the bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, while Leander won the men’s singles bronze medal at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
This being the Olympic year, the interview — Leander preferred to call it ‘conversation’ — kicked off with the achievements of Vece and Leander at the quadrennial event. The ‘conversation’ was also interlarded with banter and good-humoured jousting between the two. Whenever Vece went off line, Leander friskily pleaded: “You shouldn’t be saying these things, we’re on record!” To which, Vece’s repartee was: “Journalists know what to write.” And at one point, Leander admonished his father in jest, “It’s a nice conversation we are having here, but some people don’t know to keep it that way,” as Vece chortled. Sure, there was never a dull moment with the two together.
Throughout the interview, Leander addressed himself as ‘we’ and seldom ‘I’, which attested to the fact how much of a role his family, especially his father Vece Paes, had played in shaping his illustrious career. “I wouldn’t be where I am without my family. And I’m very blessed to have them. I think that the longevity of my excellence, so to say, is because of the roots I come from, not only in terms of genetics — which is very important as an athlete — but also in terms of environment. The mental aptitude I have comes from the respect I have for my Dad and my family. The way our conversations are… obviously, today we’re trying to touch on a few of those conversations and give you an insight into the family. But you won’t be able to do that in one sitting, or a year, the things that we go through...”
Vece Paes’ medal has always been Leander’s inspiration. And the very mention of the Munich Olympics perked him up.
“It was an iconic Games,” he said, “because the resilience of sport shone through (after 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually massacred by the Palestinian group called ‘Black September’). For me, that’s the charm of the profession I am in. The resilience of global sport is phenomenal. What Dad and other athletes competed against — the Games was shut down for four days and then they came back and finished it — that was wonderful.”
And as it happened from time to time during the course of the interview, he digressed: “I think sport is a great vehicle to bridge communities, bridge relationships, bridge friendships, bridge businesses. It is a great way of bridging governance as well — bring people together who may not necessarily be like-minded.”
But he was quickly back on rails: “Coming back to Munich, I go there to play the Munich event almost every year. There’s a beautiful little club in Munich where they have a clay-court tournament. I go back there because it’s very close to the Olympic Village and the Olympic Stadium where my Dad and other athletes marched in.”
Leander then added as an afterthought, “Munich happened in 1972, it happened before I was born. I was, in fact, conceived there.” (Leander’s mother Jennifer too participated in the 1972 Olympics as a member of the Indian basketball team.)
Now, the obvious question was, with his father a hockey player and mother a basketball player, how did Leander choose tennis?
“In school (La Martiniere, Calcutta), I used to captain teams in every sport, whether it was hockey, football, athletics... When I came to MCC in Chennai, tennis was the main focus. Just before that, when I was in Calcutta, football was my passion. I grew up with these legs; my legs are very strong,” he said, slapping the side of his thigh.
“My DNA is such that if I do a little bit of exercise I see the results really quick. So, I wanted to be a football player and my dream was to come out of the underground locker room in a World Cup with confetti everywhere. But I felt way back in the mid-eighties that it’s not going to work for me. Football was not what it is today. The game has grown with the I-League and the Indian Super League, and the opportunity these footballers get... to play with greats like (Alessandro) Del Piero, (Nicolas) Anelka, then there is Zico... Back in the eighties, we didn’t have these.
“So in February, 1986, when I was 12 years old, I got called for BAT (Britannia Amritraj Tennis). I asked my Dad, ‘What do we do?’ I played tennis, but I wasn’t good at it. Just my athleticism was there, quick eye-hand coordination was there, and the one thing I would do is I would never let the ball bounce. For me particularly, playing on grass courts in Calcutta, I was uncomfortable with the uneven bounce. So even from the baseline I would hit dry volleys. So my coaches would tell me, ‘Let the ball bounce...,” he trailed off, giggling like a toddler who had successfully pulled off a prank.
Shifting allegiance to a sport that ranked only second in his list of priorities wasn’t actually an issue for Leander Paes. But the road to success in tennis was long, arduous and lonely for the man, whose fighting spirit is well documented.
“When the opportunity (BAT) came up, we had to make a conscious decision. In football, there was no way we could get to the Olympics, and my dream was always to win an Olympic medal — like my Dad. Play in the Olympics first, win a medal and emulate Dad, and be the best Olympic athlete ever in India,” he said. “But I didn’t know then that this journey (winning the Olympic bronze medal) would be so long. I didn’t realise the uncertainties of life, uncertainties of professional sport — they don’t give you any guarantee.”
Talking of his BAT years, Leander said, “The first year was hard; the second year was also the same. But the third year started clicking and I realised this was my calling, no matter how lonely the hard yards were, no matter how long it was to run on the Marina Beach sands — seven kilometres, three times a week.
“I think when we embrace something we humans are very resilient, very adaptable also. When you embrace something and you realise that this is your calling, you might do it anyways and do it well.”
When one talks of Leander and his career the focus, almost involuntarily, shifts to his longevity. A career marked by exhausting travels, punishing schedules and gruelling matches — most players would either burn out or simply give up. But Leander is a man of a different pedigree, one who refuses to relent and plays each match, nay each point, with the kind of energy and fervour often associated with the young brigade. And perhaps he is one of the fittest players around.
“This is a life’s journey. It’s not just for sport; it’s not just for excellence. It’s life — I embarked on it many, many moons ago, and to be able to continue this journey is wonderful,” he said. “There will come a time when you’ll move on, from being an athlete and student to being the mentor, to being the teacher. But who knows, it could happen anytime, maybe today — a big injury at this stage and you’re done — or it might be in Rio, or in three years time.
“As a student of the game, I think fitness for us is for life. It’s not just for professionalism to win a Grand Slam or win an Olympic gold medal — well, yes, that’s the goal of a professional athlete, but in terms of lifestyle, and with the wear and tear of hard-court tennis, prevention is better than cure. This is where the recovery programme is so important,” Leander added.
Vece Paes complemented, saying, “People say Leander is fit, but (I say) he is fit based on what his needs are. (At his age) he no longer can do strenuous workouts, no traditional methods of training. What he does is functional training, which is staying fit by playing tennis.”
Cutting down on tournaments has also helped Leander extend his career. “In 2003, when I had tumour I realised playing so much, the wear and tear was immense. It’s more mentally. That’s why you keep reinventing.
“In 2003, after I came out of the M.D. Anderson Centre (where he underwent treatment), I realised quantity does not necessarily mean quality — at that point I was playing 42 weeks on the roll. Now I am playing only 16 tournaments a year. I was worried back then that if I reduced the number of tournaments by more than half, how my performance would go. But through experiment, the first year was okay. The second year, I started winning Grand Slam titles again. In 2012, I won the Australian Open with Radek Stepanek to complete my career Grand Slam, and then the U.S. Open, Miami and the Masters Series. So, we were not shy or scared of trying something new because we are students of life — Dad and I. We know when something is not working for us we would re-adapt.”
Cutting down on tournaments, Leander admitted, had certainly affected his ranking, but he said he does not pay attention to it. “I am not chasing the Number One ranking in the world. Ranking is not a necessity. I am chasing the history books. Everyone has different focuses, different motivations. For me, my motivation now is 17 Grand Slam titles — now I want to get 20.
“When I got my first Grand Slam title, I said, ‘Let’s get five’. After I got five, I said, ‘Let’s get 10’. After I got to double digits, I said, ‘Let’s get more’. Now I have 17, so ‘Let’s get to 20’. Numbers just keep adding.
“Now, after this, if I don’t win anything, none of you can point a finger at me because the way I have done — the way we have done it as a family — it’s been through hard work.”
Eight doubles and nine mixed doubles titles in the majors; a career Grand Slam in men’s doubles, a rare double of men’s doubles/mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon (1999) — these are, without doubt, unique achievements. But Leander Paes is still not sated. So, what is it that he wants to prove?
“The euphoria of winning a Grand Slam title the first time lasts maybe a month; the euphoria of winning the 10th Grand Slam title might last maybe a day. After winning your 17th Grand Slam title it’s like, okay, what’s next? What have I not accomplished yet?” he said.
“As long as I keep fit and healthy, and God willing I’ll get my nomination for the Olympics, which will be a world record (seven Olympics) for any international tennis player to have played the most number of Games. One of my big motivators, the man I look up to, shooter Raja Randhir Singh, has played in six, the same as me.
“If I wanted to play and if I am motivated, and if the Davis Cup team needs me, I could play Davis Cup for another five years — comfortably.
So, what is it that motivates Leander at this age?
“The History,” was his prompt answer. “The quality of performance is important, not just simply doing it. In January 2015, I really wanted to make it to Rio, and then as I started working towards it, I started winning Grand Slam titles — I won three last year, and that’s a lot,” Leander said.
“Basically the motivation that comes in is that, the things that I have been able to achieve, they were my goals, but I didn’t know the path to them. I then found the path. After they have been achieved, I say to myself, ‘Now let’s go on to achieve something else’. But you don’t know how to get it, so you go find the path and achieve it. This keeps going on and on... So, you just keep evolving.
“Last year, winning three Grand Slam titles was like wow! At 42 I could do it. So, now at 43, I am aiming to win a gold medal (in Rio) and some more Grand Slam titles. So, there comes a point where you are pushing your own boundaries — physically and mentally. As an athlete you want to test your body, physically and mentally.
“I am not the most talented player technically in the world at all. But through grit, perseverance and hard work I got there. So what pushes me is history, and my desire to push my body and mind to see how far they can go.”
Vece jumped in, “You actually go day by day with the idea to compete. If at any time you think you aren’t achieving results, you will step aside. Performance levels rather than your age determine when you should quit.”
Tennis, according to Leander, has evolved a lot. So marching in tune with the changes, one has to keep re-calibrating himself. “I think one of the biggest advantages that I have is my Dad, the way we think, that there’s no complacency; you are always looking to reinvent. Even if you’re number one in the world and at the top, you’re looking to reinvent and keep evolving with it.
“To play different teams, especially now that they (the players) are swapping and changing so often (Leander himself has played with more than a 100 different partners), we have to keep adapting. And that’s something Dad has ingrained in me as a kid — always try to get better, always try to improve.” Talking of the current Indian tennis scene, Leander said, “Som (Somdev Devvarman) had a really good run. He is a hardworking boy and tries to keep improving. Yuki (Bhambri) just broke into the top-100. He has a good opportunity to do well.
“If you look at the talent in Indian tennis, it’s phenomenal, but if you look at the knowledge of making champions, the ability to make champions — I am not talking about representing, I am talking about winning major tournaments, winning Grand Slam titles — we need to do a lot more.
“At the highest level, there is a huge gap between participating and winning. Let’s not languish here (lowering his left palm), let us talk about there (raising his right palm), because that is where it’s really worthwhile. India has immense talent, but in nurturing them into champions, we can do a lot more. So, the responsibility is ours, the ones who have achieved, to help out. We need to give back to the sport.”
There was a time when the National Championships were very important, and all the top Indian players used to participate in it. Now, not many top players are playing in the Nationals, and therefore the youngsters are not getting a chance to play against the top Indian players. This, according to Leander Paes, makes a huge difference.
“If the level of the junior tournaments, under-16s, under-18s — lots of kids are playing in these categories — rises the quality rises. If the level of the Nationals gets better, everything gets better. That is why I compliment the Indian Premier League, the Premier Badminton League and the Indian Super League. In all these leagues, the one cardinal thing they do is that they give local talent a chance to play with and against the best.
“If you look at the metros, urban India, the options and opportunities for the kids are huge, but they need to do the hard yards. To become champions, they need the desire, the hunger.”
India is now battling to get into the World Group stage. Talking of India’s chances of entering the World Group, Leander said: “We have our work cut out. In Davis Cup, we have always been proud of winning the doubles for sure, especially in the last two decades. But in the tournament, four of the rubbers are singles, so it’s not going to be easy.
“So, to make it to the World Group do we have the talent? Yes, 100 percent. Yuki, Somdev, the young Ramkumar are all talented. But the competition at the world-level is very, very tough. To make it to the World Group means being among the top-16 countries in the world. All of us will have to work very hard to get there.”