Leander Paes’ first tour overseas to play in a Challenger Series was anything but uncomplicated. Flat broke and six weeks on the road in the harsh European winter, he almost contemplated returning home halfway through the Series. But some sagacious advice from his father, Vece Paes, aroused the fighter in Leander, only 17 then, and he decided to soldier on. Paes Sr. recalled, “From Calcutta’s tropical, humid climate, we sent him on his first tour to Europe — Wolfsburg in Germany. In those days, we had a lot of sponsorships — 35 to 40 lakhs a year from different sponsors for five years. So, we could buy him a ticket and give him about 200 dollars for the (Challenger) circuit, which was for about six weeks. So, he had to win to survive in Wolfsburg.”
Leander then cut in, much to the amusement of his father, “Where you’re gonna win at that age — I was 17, just out of the junior circuit — the guys there were twice my size and they had been around for much longer than I was.”
Paes Sr. went on: “One day he called me from there saying, ‘Dad, it’s snowing here’. So, I asked him, ‘How does it change things?’ He said, ‘No, I can’t handle it’.
“Then I advised him, ‘Leander, you are at the crossroads. If you survive this, you would have toughened yourself up to be ready for the international circuit. If you come back, you are always going to run back home.’ So, he stayed. I learnt the man was broke, so he lived in the locker room in Wolfsburg.”
Leander then ran us through the rest of the story: “The attendant allowed me to sleep and shower in the locker room. He would lock me in and tell me to go to sleep. In the morning, he would come back at 5.45 because the players would start rolling in at 7 am. So, he had to clean up the place.
“He always left one window at the top open and said if you hear anyone, just jump out of the window and run. He gave me one towel to spread on the locker room floor, one towel rolled up to use as a pillow, and one towel to cover myself. When he came in the morning, he would wake me up. I would then brush my teeth there and shower up, then have a hot chocolate and buy him a coffee, have a burger and move on. So, the other players never knew that I was sleeping in the locker room.”
(As appeared in sportstar.thehindu.com on February 18, 2016)