In his tennis career spanning over three decades, Leander Paes has inspired many a generation. From being the country’s only Olympic medallist in tennis to clinching 18 Grand Slam titles - Paes has achieved unparalleled success in Indian tennis.
As he turns 50 on Saturday, Paes spoke to Sportstar about his legacy, his life’s darkest phases and how he overcame them and what the road ahead looks like.
As you turn 50, how do you look at how far you’ve come?
I have lived a very blessed life. I was a young Leander growing up in Kolkata with a dream to become an Olympic champion and play for India in the Davis Cup or the Asian Games. Looking back now, my showcase is completely full. At the same time, the biggest thrill of my life was to play seven world record Olympics for our country. I feel blessed, humble and am also inspired to share those journeys with others.
We have seen pictures and heard stories of how birthdays were at home, at Beck Bagan Row in Kolkata. How is the 50th going to be?
The first 50 years have given me a great platform to support the dreams of my next 50 — spending quality time with my family and with the people who matter in my life. Also, I would like to bring together 60 years worth of knowledge of my father and 40 years of mine, share those 100 years with the youth and impart the physical and mental skills that two generations of Olympic champions in our family have learnt
Coming back to your own journey through tennis and life so far, what would you identify as the defining moments?
Growing up with my parents in Calcutta, playing sports with my father in the maidans. I was lucky to have played rugby and football at the CC&FC and learn the importance of teamwork and camaraderie. I was privileged to attend the La Martinière For Boys school. A few teachers told me to concentrate on studies because they thought I would never be anything, especially after being diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse. The doctors thought I would never be able to play any body contact sport or become a professional athlete..
But I listened to my heart and shifted to Chennai to join the Britannia-Amritraj Academy. Those days spent in Chennai, away from home, my parents and loved ones, taught me a different set of skills and a different kind of mindset. It was never going to be easy, but I knew I had to do it all.
Winning the Junior Wimbledon title gave me the belief that I belong to the big stage. The Davis Cup debut for India in Chandigarh boosted my confidence..
But like you said, each of those moments taught you a thing or two…
The winters of 1991 and 1992 were hard. I had to sleep in locker rooms as I did not have the means to travel on the Pro tours. I was not winning matches during that period, so obviously I had nothing to show to the world. But things changed in 1993 during the Davis Cup in Frejus where we won.
I then slowly began winning tournaments and went on to make my debut at the 1992 Barcelona Games, a huge landmark for me to have even made it there. Attending the opening ceremony was a huge deal, it motivated me immensely.
And then, four years later, I was on the podium at the Atlanta Olympics with that bronze medal around my neck. Listening to the national anthem playing was a dream come true, the end of all the hard work, sacrifice and planning.
There was no looking back after that...
In 1999, I won two out of four Grand Slams and enjoyed tremendous success in doubles. We proved that Indians can also win Grand Slams and emerge as world-beaters. Wimbledon 1999 was special because we won the doubles and the mixed doubles.
Even in 2001 and 2003, I enjoyed success playing alongside Martina Navratilova. Then came the toughest phase when I was diagnosed with a tumour in my brain, but it was eventually not as life threatening as initially thought.
How challenging was it to come back to the circuit after that phase? How did you motivate yourself?
Despite the challenges, I have been a blessed Indian man, who believes in the powers that be. The almighty has always helped me overcome challenges. My family has been a huge source of support for me. My father, Dr. Vece Paes, has always been a guiding light and then there’s Aiyana, my daughter. I have an unconditional bond with her and she’s a huge blessing.
2003 was tough but I got over the challenges that phase of my life presented and made it to my fourth Olympics in Athens in 2004. I came very close to winning another medal - in the doubles. Losing that game by such a narrow margin is something I will never forget. That’s also a landmark for me. These aren’t always about moments that are pleasant and fabulous. Landmarks are also about things that went unaccomplished. The 2004 Olympics was one such event, where we came so close!
You said that milestones are just not victories, it could also be about things that one couldn’t accomplish. Being one of India’s earliest Olympic champions and an inspiration to a whole bunch of Olympic achievers like Abhinav Bindra, did you at any point think you did not get the recognition you deserved?
I am a guy who doesn’t just look at the cup half full. I am someone who is grateful to even have a cup.
The amount of reverence I get from people around the world is just incredible. From Park Street in Calcutta to any other place around the world - even today, people come up to me and say they watched a match of mine and how I’ve somehow inspired them become who they have. They tell me how they would set an alarm or just stay awake all night just to watch me win, or how they’ve gone to a university in another country and found courage to take on the challenge because I did in my life. So, to be that person who inspires generations around the world is a huge blessing and responsibility. I am grateful not just for my cup being so full but for even having a cup.
Between 2012 and 2016, things turned sour for Indian tennis over your selection, especially before the Olympics. Do you think those controversies could have been avoided?
(Pauses) Like I was saying, the amount of reverence I get from people around the world is just incredible. And for that, I literally bow my head to the superpower in gratitude and also thrive on sharing all my victories with every Indian out there who supported me and been the wind beneath my wings.
I never saw myself playing singles for myself. I saw myself playing for my partners, my family, for India, for the blue or playing for our people. My biggest motivation was to prove that we Indians are world-beaters. Whether it was on the Davis Cup stage, Olympic stage or Grand Slam stage, to be one of only three men on this planet who have won all four Grand Slam titles in men’s doubles and mixed doubles alongside (Mark) Woodforde and (Todd) Woodbridge - it’s a huge world record in itself and that too, for a guy who used to first play gully cricket and football barefoot. That’s how I look at it.
You’ve missed out on one very important milestone in your career - the India-Pakistan Davis Cup match at the CCI courts in Mumbai in 2006. What are your memories of that tie?
That week was a huge milestone because not only did we play a Davis Cup tie in Mumbai on grass, but my daughter, Aiyana was born. I was blessed with her despite coming out of a cancer hospital and being told by the doctors that I wouldn’t have a kid.
Aiyana was born on 3rd April 2006, on the Monday of the week. Later that same week, I went on to win the fifth decisive match over Pakistan. Lord knows what would have happened if I had not won. We saw in the latest Grand Slam - at the French Open how the world no.1 men’s tennis player, Carlos Alcaraz had to cede space and struggle against Novak Djokovic - the greatest of all time. With Djokovic going for his 23rd title, Alcaraz was really hurting with those full body cramps and eventually couldn’t continue properly. So, who knows how history would have turned if we didn’t find a way physically and mentally to get over the cramps in that match.
This was 16-17 years ago. It’s not about getting the cramps, it’s about having the mental attitude and the team around you to navigate such obstacles in life.
As Aiyana was born that week, I spent most of the time sleeping on the couch in the hospital and would then rush to CCI for training with the team. I had to be there on the bench throughout the weekend but ended up stepping in for a player who decided not to feature in that fifth game - Rohan Bopanna (for reasons only he knows).
Long story short, that was a pit but it was also an opportunity to take and win for India. That’s what I’ve always done whenever I’ve had challenges that seem insurmountable. I just undertook it, went at it a step at a time, did the best I could, and once again created history for India that weekend, beating Pakistan in that fifth game, overcoming full body cramps in the third and fourth set.
And in sweltering conditions too...
Yeah, it was 100% humidity at the CCI. There was no shade, no tree, absolutely nothing. Imagine playing in that blistering Mumbai sun!
There are a lot of pressures when you play in heightened situations like that. But at the end of the day, you’re just another man trying to be the best you can be. So yes, 2006 was a big one with this match and my daughter being born.
What are the achievements you hold close to your heart?
There have been so many moments in my life, whether it was in 2012 where I completed the career Slam in men’s doubles at the Australian Open, or winning the French Open mixed doubles in 2016 after losing so many mixed doubles finals and completing the mixed doubles career Slam with Martina Hingis. It takes a bit of doing to be able to play for 31 years and stay away from any major injuries.
I have huge gratitude to my parents, and my father especially, for guiding me and being the first one there where I lose and the last one there when I win. His discipline and emotional support are the biggest reasons behind who I am today - as a man, an athlete, a father and a son.
Along with my parents, I have to thank Sanjay Singh for dedicating his life to my career, Todd Murphy, Martin Damm, Gene Mayer, Tony Roche and many others
When you look at all the people in my team over the years, they are all huge landmark relationships in my life. These are people who have given selflessly to me and my career and helped me become who I’ve become.
I always say, every one of my trophies have their names on it - the Indian fans who stay up late at night or set an alarm to watch me on TV, or come out to the stadium for hours and hours under the sun. Their names are on it. I have always been motivated and driven to play for the people and take a lot of pride in those bonds.
On the personal front, is there an achievement or memory you hold close to your heart?
The birth of Aiyana. She was born on April 3, 2006 and that was a huge landmark in my life. She has made my life happier for good. Daughters are the biggest blessings, especially daughters like Aiyana, who is so wonderfully bonded and gifted in so many ways. She teaches me new things everyday. I am so lucky to have her in my life.
When we won the US Open in 2006 for the first time, I always thought that Aiyana was my good luck charm and has brought great luck in my life. The US Open victory in the men’s doubles with Martin Damm was one I really fought for my whole career but hadn’t done till then. And soon after Aiyana came into my life, I won that coveted title!
You’re a big movie buff. But the life you lead doesn’t allow you any retakes. When you look back, do you think there was anything you could do differently?
I am sure there are things I could have done differently or better, mistakes I could have been without making. Hindsight is 20/20. Maybe there are things I could have handled better, but I also feel that every step of the way, I have always made conscientious decisions using my personality, my skills, my sense of passion towards whatever is on my plate, to make the best decision at the time with the best knowledge I had.
So really, there are no regrets. I can sit back and say I gave it everything.
Could I have avoided a few pitfalls? For sure. Could I have done something differently to not make a mistake? I am sure I could have. If little Leander at five knew that at the age of 50 he would be sitting where I am today, he would do it all over again.
In the next few hours, there’s going to be a lot of contemplation and rewinding the clock with all my friends and loved ones who are already reminding me of stories I’ve shared with each of them individually over the last 50 years.
I feel so blessed. I am looking forward to the next 50, to give it every single thing I have got, in the best way I know how. I want to inspire youngsters all over the world and say that “if Leander can be a champion, so can you…”
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