Leander Paes: Time to reinvent myself once again

At his final ATP Tour event in India, Paes discusses his impending retirement, his plans for the second innings, and more.

Leander Paes...“With the second innings, I see there is so much to do that I don’t know if you can ever perfectly get it right. But I know that I have done pretty good so far. I have done all right.”   -  R. Ragu

An Olympic medal, 39 weeks as World No. 1, 18 Grand Slam titles — no Indian tennis player has come close to matching the achievements of Leander Paes. The 46-year-old announced in December that he will bring the curtains down on his illustrious career at the end of the 2020 season. As part of his plans to play select tournaments as part of the ‘One Last Roar’ farewell tour, Leander Paes is in Pune to compete in doubles at the Tata Open Maharashtra with Australia’s Matthew Ebden.

At his final ATP Tour event in India, Paes discussed his impending retirement, his plans for the second innings, and more in an emotional media interaction on Wednesday night.

Excerpts

On the decision to retire now

I’ve had many situations in my career where I thought I would call it a day. I remember in 1991, I was sleeping in a locker room in Wolfsburg, Germany. I travelled for 10 months in the whole season. And having come home once, I got so burnt out that I thought that was it. I threw my racquets in the cupboard. And for eight weeks I didn’t play. I thought that was it. Then in 2003, when I was in the cancer hospital for a few months, I thought that I was done because I put on 128 pounds approximately. I thought in 2016 when my daughter had surgery and I was off the circuit for about seven months, I thought that that was it.

But I feel like right now, after evaluating what else is there to do with tennis, there’s nothing else that pushes me. My team is trying very hard to make sure that I don’t retire. My dad, my team, they’re trying very hard to make sure I continue. At three o’clock in the morning, when I was in the gym, my dad said: ‘Hey, keep playing because you’re still that good at it’.

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But I think that there are so many other opportunities away from tennis that are more exciting. I can create opportunities for the youngsters to go out there and do good work in the field of sports, education; to use the platform that I have to help other Indians become champions, whether it’s through motivation, whether it’s through speaking engagements, whether it’s through interactions in the corporate set-up or schools.

I think that in the first innings of my life I’ve done well. I’ve played a good innings, I have hit a few good sixes. And now in the second innings of my life, I am still feeling out the pitch, I’m still feeling out the batting. I feel that in the second innings, there’s a lot more to offer than winning Grand Slams and winning Olympic medals.

What changed now?

The difference from 16 years old to 46 years old is more in the motivation and the hard yards that it takes and the loneliness that it takes to achieve excellence. I think that when you’ve had a career like mine, where the bar is so far up there, you feel like in the beginning of the year, you have to make an evaluation of what the goals are for this year. Can I push that bar higher?

Yes, I know how to win. Yes, I know how to win Grand Slams, or I know how to win Olympic medals. And I’ve done that and reinvented myself over and over again over 31 years. But I also think you can never get it right. I’ll be honest about that. You’ve seen some of my partners like Martina Navratilova, or Martina Hingis, come out of retirement three times. So they reinvented their career four times. Someone like Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes of all time, retired from the NBA with the Chicago Bulls, went with the Chicago White Sox to play baseball and then came back to play for the Washington Wizards. So you see, athletes are so hungry for excellence after a certain point that the reinvention of oneself is really important.

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With the second innings, I see there is so much to do that I don’t know if you can ever perfectly get it right. But I know that I have done pretty good so far. I have done all right.

On his decision to hold the one last roar farewell tour

I don’t know if I’ll get 100 percent right, but I know one thing that I’ve done the best that I could. Is it easy? No. One last roar is not easy. I’m trying my best to be as professional as I can be. I’m trying my best to win one more Indian Open, to win one more Grand Slam, to win one more Dubai Open, to go out there with a loud roar.

But as an athlete who takes pride in performance, as an athlete who has loved every second of playing for the people, I feel one last roar is my way of saying thanks.

It’s my way of saying thanks to a huge community of fans all around the world. With tennis being such a global sport, right from Auckland, New Zealand to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. I’m getting messages saying, ‘No, don’t retire, please play, please come here and play once so we can see’.

Last week in the Australian Open, I had a young friend of mine. He flew all the way from Leon, Mexico, all the way to Melbourne, Australia, and came and sat in my box to watch me play. So for me, tennis has been a phenomenal vehicle to make some great friends.

You know, a few of you all have been with me through my career for a long time. And a lot of y’all know it’s not easy for me also to do what I’m doing. It’s not about giving the younger cadre a chance. It’s not about ‘You’ve done enough, so retire.’ I think when you run a race this well and you run it for so long, you live by your own standards. You live by your own rules.

And I feel that for me, going around, giving reverence is a true reflection of the respect that I have for what the sport has given me.

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As a 15-year-old I played Davis Cup in Chandigarh in 1995. I’ve played enough Grand Slam finals, I have played enough Olympics, I have played against Indians my whole career. It doesn’t take much for me to be passionate, doesn’t take much for me to be pumped up. I feel that I have a deep sense of pride in my performance.

So even here, I’m not here (Tata Open Maharashtra) to just get a wild card and go through the motions. The people that know me, they know that I want the trophy. They know that I want to go out with a big win. They know I want to put my stamp this year. At 46, I can still do it.

On father’s (Dr Vece Paes, Olympic medallist in hockey ) advice on post-retirement

No, we haven’t got that far because he’s still not letting me play one last roar. He thinks there are many roars left. I think that maybe it’s his responsibility as a father to keep motivating his son to keep going because my dad knows that I’m the sort of person that once I do retire, there generally is no coming back to it.

I think he knows my character immensely well, because apart from the DNA that we share, my dad has been my hero. He’s been my best friend. He’s been my mentor. He’s been my doctor. He’s been so many different things to me. And literally, everything I am today is because it stems from my parents.

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That being said, I feel like one day that we might get to the conversation about what it feels like the day after you retire or the week or the month or the year after. But as far as my dad goes, it’s every single day he’s at me saying, ‘You’re still young, you’re still fresh, you have still got your legs, you still got the skill set to win. And especially after that win (in the first round), he just looked at me and he goes, ‘What are you doing?’

Plans for the second innings

What if I told you the number of people that are talking to me and saying, ‘Please play till you are 50’, the number of banners that are in that stadium, or in the Australian Open asking me to play till 50. My dad points them out every day.

But one day, the music will go silent. And when this concert finishes, there’s going to be a big band and a big orchestra waiting for me in another arena, and another field and a new avatar.

And that music is very attractive to me.

So, if I can do the hardest thing that athletes try to do — to transition from having a big career in one field and transition into another field if I can do that smoothly. I think that’s a job well done.

These next three years are going to be in that transition. Just as I transitioned from a junior athlete into a professional athlete, just as I’ve reinvented myself so many times, I’ve developed a beautiful team that is going to help me in this transition. I think that now the dream for me would be to go to an Olympics and have one of my athletes playing in the Olympics, to go to a Wimbledon or go to a Grand Slam and see one of my athletes winning it.

I think that if I look at some past players in India, who I have tremendous respect for, it'll be Rahul Dravid, [P.] Gopichand, to name a few, and also Ravi Shastri.

What Gopichand has done after being an All England champion is he's got two Olympic medal winners. Dravid has got the Under-19 cricket team to win the World Cup. They are an inspiration.

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