Leander Paes: staying power!

Leander Paes’ achievements — 18 Grand Slam crowns in doubles and mixed doubles and the men’s singles bronze medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, apart from various other titles — are testimony to the hunger in the man. Even at the age of 43, and despite having had setbacks on and off the court, the desire for titles remains.

Leander Paes... his achievements are testimony to the hunger in the man.   -  Sushil Kumar Verma

India's Leander Paes and Saketh Myneni in action against Spaniards Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez in the doubles match of the Davis Cup tie in New Delhi.   -  Sandeep Saxena

At 43, Leander Paes has very little interest to display his game to the world. However, he is eager to play if he gets a partner who can stir up the positive energy in him, and in front of a crowd that brings out the Indian in him.

His achievements — 18 Grand Slam crowns in doubles and mixed doubles and the men’s singles bronze medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics behind Andre Agassi (gold) and Sergi Bruguera (silver) when he was learning the ropes in the professional circuit in 1996, and various other titles — are testimony to the hunger in the man. The hunger still remains regardless of the odds stacked against him, and despite the constant negative vibes that would normally drive one away from the tennis court.

He was accused of being disinclined to prepare hard for the 2016 Olympics, blamed for landing just two days before the competition in Rio. But in fact, Leander had done remarkably well to prepare for his seventh Olympics by not only keeping his ranking at a respectable level by reaching the quarterfinals of the men’s doubles at the French Open but also by competing in the Challengers.

 

“I call the Challengers the real trenches. It is where you see hungry athletes, fighting hard. They fight there not for a good life, but to survive. The spark comes from there,” said Paes in a chat with Sportstar during the Davis Cup tie against Spain in New Delhi.

It required a player like Saketh Myneni, an athlete with an open mind, willing to listen and learn, to bring out the positive side of Paes, as the spectators witnessed at the R. K. Khanna Stadium. The Olympic champions, Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez, had to be at the top of their game for more than three hours, to win a thriller against the Indian pair and seal the Davis Cup World Group berth for Spain, which eventually won the tie-5-0.

It was heart-warming to see Leander compete hard with all the energy and passion that he could generate. There was no doubt about his game or surety of touch.

In the run-up to the Rio Olympics, Leander had won four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles — at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2015 and at the French Open in 2016. He desperately wanted to play with Sania Mirza in Rio. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Leander was easily the best, but they did not have the conviction that the pairing would bring out the best in him.

He does appreciate that all champions have their flaws, and if we remove the flaws the whole structure will collapse, for the flaws too play a crucial part in the making of the champions. Yet, he could not withstand the animosity. Leander said, if he had teased players over the years, it was purely to bring out the best in them. He set exacting standards for himself and could not digest it when others did not list their priorities in a similar way.

“I have travelled by train, stayed in locker rooms. During Challengers, you get to stay only in modest hotels with one tap, and you have to take a ‘bucket bath’,” Leander remarked.

According to Leander, two good chances of winning medals were missed in the last two Olympics, in London and Rio. He was keen to play with Rohan Bopanna in London when he had the right of choice as a top-10 player. He was keen to play with Sania Mirza in Rio, as both were at the top of their game. But how does a team win matches without mutual understanding and respect?

“Life is a journey. You adapt to the changes. I believe our strength lies in respect and honour. In modern society, these qualities are treated as a weakness. Everyone is in a hurry to become a hero, and they are looking for shortcuts, without having to work hard for long years,” said Paes. He was looking at life in general, not just tennis.

The public perception is often manipulated with the constant sowing of the seeds of doubts in their mind. A champion like Leander is not inclined to clear his image, for he is fighting battles on too many fronts to have the energy or the desire to do so.

“After 10 years of fame, you look for privacy and your group of people who have the same vibes and spread happiness around. There is so much of nonsense floating all around, you are keen to stay away from it,” Leander said.

During the toughest time of his life — something he has kept to himself, away from the public glare — when his daughter was going through a long rehab after undergoing neurosurgery, Leander had to fight so many battles off the court. He took everything in his stride and got on with the game.

“Every week I used to look at the app in my phone and see my rank slipping. It was not an easy period. I could not do much about it. My mind was completely occupied, and I could not think clearly. I could not take intuitive decisions in the time that I usually make,” recalled Leander.

“I have nothing to prove to anyone. I love the game. I have the right to enjoy my tennis. It will require very good players to push me out of the team,” he said.

Leander had often felt unenthusiastic about doing things that were not rewarding. According to him, he was actually losing money even when he was winning the Challenger titles. However, the urge to climb back to the top kept him going. Leander is aiming for the record of maximum number of doubles wins in the Davis Cup. He is tied with Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy with 42 wins. He also wants to win more Grand Slam titles. He is proud to have a place in tennis history.

According to Leander, it feels “very special” to join Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde as the only players to have won career Grand Slams in both men’s doubles and mixed doubles.

As an honour to his friend Martina Navratilova, who taught him to look at years as mere numbers, Leander wants to win at least one more Grand Slam mixed doubles title to overtake her tally of 10.

“The magic comes through when the desire burns within,” he said.