From The Archives: 17-year-old Leander Paes on his Junior Wimbledon triumph, ambitions in the sport and more

From the archives (1991): It is surprising that a boy who will be 18 only on June 17 this year, has so much mental maturity. Then, that is what differentiates Leander from the rest.

Published : Jun 17, 2023 12:48 IST - 16 MINS READ

Leander Paes, Wimbledon junior champion, proudly displaying his trophy and medal in Calcutta on July 13, 1990. Leander is only the third Indian to win this title after Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan.
Leander Paes, Wimbledon junior champion, proudly displaying his trophy and medal in Calcutta on July 13, 1990. Leander is only the third Indian to win this title after Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Leander Paes, Wimbledon junior champion, proudly displaying his trophy and medal in Calcutta on July 13, 1990. Leander is only the third Indian to win this title after Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Leander Paes has captured the imagination of the public with his energetic play. Success, in the form of the junior Wimbledon title, has projected him as the brightest hope in a long time in Indian tennis. There are expectations all around that this lad will reach far. For Leander, these expectations do not mean anything “I have nothing to do with others’ expectations I play to my best and that is what I will continue to do. Winning and losing do not matter to me as long as I know that I am developing.” It is surprising that a boy who will be 18 only on June 17 this year, has so much mental maturity.

Then, that is what differentiates Leander from the rest He knows the challenge he is up against, and more importantly know clearly as to how to tackle the hurdles on the way to the top. Leander, under the guidance of his father, Dr Vece Paes, will be joining Gene Mayer’s programme within the next few weeks He will have to sacrifice a lot and he knows that only too well Many people have been sceptical about his ebullient methods but he counters them by saying that he knows what suits him best.

Dr Vece Paes has impressed on him that it is more important to be a good human being than being a successful tennis player. Leander is out to prove that nice guys can finish on top. His aim is to show that a successful tennis player with killer instinct, can also be a gentleman Leander spoke to The Sportstar, after clinching the tie for India against South Korea. Excerpts:

Question: Your father has played a key role in helping you reach where you are. And obviously he is working hard to take you further. What has been his influence on you?

Answer: My parents have been a great influence on me A child is influenced by what it comes across in the first 12 years I have been lucky to have had parents who are well mannered. I have been impressed with the strong mental attitude of my parents I have been lucky in the sense that sports comes right from the family. It has been good that way One important aspect that I have learnt from my father is that a person can win with all the killer instinct and what not and still be a gentleman.

Q: In the early years you had started off as a footballer. Then you had a knee problem and shifted to tennis. Do you miss being a footballer?

A: Despite the knee problem if I had really wanted I could have taken to football. The knee ligaments were weak, and kicking around with a football would have been tougher So I made my choice, and I am happy with it.

Q: How was your experience with BAT?

A: It was very productive It was an excellent experience for four and a half years. We developed on all sides, as tennis players, students and individuals The environment was such that you kept learning all the time We were travelling, meeting different people which meant that we were learning The whole thing was a package We were trained not only to be best tennis players but good all-round persons also, which I think is important.

Q: What sort of impression have you had of BAT coach Dave O’Meara and Vijay Amritraj?

A: O’Meara sir was a perfectionist and an excellent person to train with He concentrated on our training and studies. He taught me to give 100 per cent in whatever I was doing. He was a tough taskmaster too. Even if we were tired he used to make us run another lap. He trained us to take that much extra out of ourselves He was good as a physical trainer Technically, we thought a lot on the same lines. Hence, I had no problem in adjusting my game to his advice. The Amritraj family on the whole was quite good to us. Vijay, Anand and Ashok were very good and keen in our training. Whenever they came down to India, they used to train with us and we too got on well with them. Each individual has his own characteristics. Vijay has a good personality and the great part is that he always tries to be the best person that he could be to all.

Q: How was it to reach the junior Australian Open final and then lose it?

A: It was unprofessional of me to have lost in the final. Particularly, after I had won the semi-final after a good fight. I was physically tired as we had a long train journey back after the semifinal, and there was no time to relax. In the final I couldn’t play at the same level. I saved a match point in the tiebreaker to make it 6-4. Then, he (Dirk Dier of West Germany) tried a drop shot, I managed to reach it and hit it over his head but to my surprise he was able to return that beautifully. That performance was of course a considerable improvement on my effort in the previous year in which I had lost in the first round itself, both at the Australian and Wimbledon, to Gaurav Natekar and to Weinberg respectively.

Q: You won the junior Wimbledon to make amends for your Australian Open loss. What was your feeling?

A: I had worked hard for it and I was happy with the reward. There is no short cut to success. It was a good final and I won 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 I was confident of winning even before the final. I had a close second-round match.

Q: Did you miss your father on those two occasions?

A: It would have been great to have had my father around in Australia and England. I had been away from my family for four and a half years. So I had got used to being away from the family. We have got to live with realities.

Q: Doesn’t your father’s presence during tournaments give you extra confidence?

A: It doesn’t matter who is around and who is not. It is I who play. That is all that matters. If you depend on someone being there, then you are in trouble.

Q: What role did your days in Calcutta play in shaping you as a sportsman?

A: I played every sport in my school days. Calcutta is a great place for having fun. There is so much sporting activity that one is always kept busy. Clubs and schools have plenty to offer for the sports enthusiasts. I could always be active there as I am a member of the South Club.

Q: Is your serve and volley game a result of your beginnings in Calcutta?

A: I used to play on clay and grass courts. The style is a person’s choice. My instinct was to play the serve and volley game when I started with tennis. After that everything else came automatically

Q: How much did you gain from your first coach Mr. Anwar Ali?

A: I was very young so I don’t remember much. But what I remember is that he made it a lot of fun to play. He was a nice man, always bubbling with energy and joking. He was one among us.

Q: Did you have to change much when you joined BAT?

A: You always develop. Developing means changing. It is good to be improving oneself. Well, there wasn’t much change. There were just the minor adjustments. Toss the ball a bit higher, put a little more power behind the ground strokes and things like that They were a sort of minor additions to the technique.

Q: By Indian standards you have a good service. Do you feel that there is room for improvement?

A: Yes. Naturally my serve has to improve I am physically very strong and that answers for my ability to send down the big ones. Everything out of practice. At BAT we got the rhythm right and then you do what you have to do. Work hard on it.

Q: What do you feel was the difference in playing in the men’s circuit after a fantastic run in the juniors?

A: Basically you meet better players. The main difference, however, lies in the head. You find that everyone has got the serve, the strokes and athleticism But what makes the difference is one’s mental toughness. My approach has been to put the whole game in a better sequence and that is all.

Q: How has it been playing in the Davis Cup? You played a crucial match to clinch the tie for India. What did you feel before getting on court for that match?

A: For me it was another match. The only difference is that you are in a team. I give my 100 per cent all the time and that is what matters

Q: But your team-mates and the whole country expects you to win. In such a situation don’t you feel the pressure?

A: Well, the expectations £re for other people Not for me I try to do my best and that is what I can do. Playing in the Davis Cup, I have always felt that I am playing another match. Obviously the pressure is more But you can only try to do your best. The game plan is there and I have to stick to it. Your tennis will be a part of your personality. My personality could be anything It is a part of being a champion. You have to be mentally tough.

Q: Were you confident of beating Ji Seung-Ho in that important match?

A: Confidence is there all the time I agree that it was a crucial match. My approach is that whether I win or lose there is always scope for improvement. As long as you keep that perspective it will be good. You are not going to play at your best every day. Even if you are not at your best, you try your best. That is what matters. Moreover, you don’t think this player is an easy one and that player is tough. You take match by match and try to give your best.

Q: What do you feel about the role of the non-playing captain, Mr. Naresh Kumar?

A: Naresh Kumar sir is a nice gentleman and very helpful. He gets on very well with us. He is always willing to help and understands us very well He looks after our needs so well that it makes it so much easier for us to go and try our best He is very friendly and relaxed.

Q: What do you feel are your strong points and weaknesses?

A: Two or three years ago there were weaknesses I don’t have any major weakness now. But I know that I have to develop my game a lot further. There is so much to improve in every department that I don’t find anything as my strong point.

Q: How do you prepare yourself before an important match?

A: Preparation is always there irrespective of the opponent or match. You study your opponent Everyone has some likes and dislikes. You go about trying to do what he doesn’t like. There are always two, three game plans If one doesn’t work you go to the next. One has to be prepared 100 per cent for every match. One can’t take anything for granted. If you think that your opponent is weak or strong you are conceding the advantage to him. The thought should be that he is just an opponent and I’ll have to play the match. You try to play at your best and when you do that you invariably win. There is mental preparation too.

Q: How do you train yourself mentally?

A: There are different methods advised and adopted by different people. I know what works best for me I always try to visualise the various possibilities and prepare myself to face them. I don’t visualise like losing but visualise the methods to avoid reaching that stage. We were taught how to go about it at BAT If you know about the possible situations you would be in then you are ready If you are not ready then you are in for trouble When I go to the States I will come across many other programmes and learn more.

Q: Your game is aggressive. You seem to rely more on power than touch like that of a Ramesh Krishnan. Your comments.

A: I have got the power and I have to use it to my advantage. In future, I will need the power, the touch and everything else. Maybe the percentage will vary from other players like Ramesh Krishnan, but I will need them all the same if I want to be a successful player. Well, Ramesh relies on touch game because it suits him and it is his style. I follow what suits me. Still I know that I’ll have a lot to learn from him.

Q: There is criticism that you are ebullient, overzealous and waste a lot of energy on court. How do you react to this?

A: People have freedom of speech and they can speak whatever they like. I know what suits me I judge my requirements and how to go about my game.

Q: It is particularly impressive to find you totally concentrate on the match and cut yourself out from everything else, even from the cheering of the crowd. How did you learn to achieve this at such an young age?

A: The basic thing is that one cant afford to lose one’s concentration. One realises that one is out there for a job and one can’t afford distraction. You relax only when you come out of the match. If you relax when you are playing you give the advantage to your opponent. I tend to concentrate intensely for otherwise one can’t be the best that one can be.

Q: You have a tough career ahead with hardly four weeks every year for relaxation. You will miss a lot on the social front. How do you prepare yourself for this?

A: A career is the choice that one has to make. One has to set his goals. If it means not going to many parties and missing out on the social front one has to accept it. Basically it is up to the individual. You decide what sort of life you want to live.

Q: How do you entertain yourself?

A: I love music, Elvis and Gloria Estefan, in particular. I watch a few films and liked Apurva Sahodarargal, the Tamil film. I was impressed with the acting of Kamal Hassan.

Q: Have you given any thought to acting in films?

A: I may one day act in a film. At present it is tennis and nothing else I don’t want to contemplate the distant future. It is difficult to plan that far now itself. Let us go step by step and when we reach the stage we will decide then.

Q: Why don’t you take the genial Enrico Piperno along to help you as you get along so well with him?

A: Rico is great fun He has a tremendous sense of humour and is a sort of family member with us He knows me since I was five. We are great friends and he has been of great help. I have a lot to learn and need better coaches. That is why we had to make the decision. Moreover, Rico has his family. His responsibilities will increase as he is about to become a father soon.

Q: Whom do you model your tennis on?

A: You don’t model on any particular player. At the top level each player has his own strong points. One has to take the good points from each. But if I have to name one, it will be Connors, for his fighting qualities. I like Becker and Edberg for their serve and volley game, Lendl for his discipline and Noah for his athletic ability When you take the good points you become a complete player.

Q: What is your daily schedule?

A: I get up about 7 am. I have breakfast and start my tennis stint from 8-30 and play up to 10.30 or 11. I have a shower and relax. I start tennis at 3 p.m. and play up to 5 30 or 6 I undergo physical training from 6.30 to 8 30

Q: What is your diet?

A: Given half the chance I would like to be a vegetarian. My fat level is low. Presumably that is the reason why I am getting the cramps I am trying chicken and eggs If it works it is O.K. Otherwise, I keep stuffing myself, because I lose a lot of weight as I spend a lot of energy in practice and match play I try to keep track of my weight

Q: We noticed you wearing anklets. Is there anything seriously wrong with your ankles?

A: I was wearing it on the second and third day of this tie, after two years. I had strained my ankle and I wanted to be cautious There is nothing to worry about.

Q: You seem to be very religious.

A: I have faith in the super power. I have had my own contacts with the supreme force Faith depends on everyone’s experience. I have total faith

Q: What is your ambition?

A: I will try to be the best gentleman that I can be. I would like to be an all-round person, who is knowledgeable and who can interact with anybody. I want to be a good tennis player with the killer instinct and I would like to show that such a person can be a gentleman too I would like to be the best tennis player which means trying to be No. 1. I know that it needs a lot of hard work. Then that is where the challenge is

Q: You have millions of supporters, youngsters in particular, who cheer you when they watch you and who want you to win when they are viewing the TV. What would you like to convey to them?

A: The main thing for me is to set a good example. I would like to be the right role model Each individual is talented in his or her own way. The point is one has to understand what one is good at and try to nurture that talent If you work hard you will definitely do well After all you gain what you work for sincerely. Nothing comes easy I am grateful to all my supporters and I wish to give them back something by being a good role model.

This piece was published in Sportstar in 1991.

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