Rio de Janeiro: For India’s Leander Paes, the Olympics run in the family and his record seventh appearance at the Games represents another landmark in a career which has straddled three bruising decades.
The 43-year-old jokes that he was even conceived during the Olympics—in 1972 in Munich where his father Vece played in India’s bronze-medal winning hockey team and mother Jennifer played in the basketball.
Paes himself went on to win a bronze medal in singles at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Four years later, he carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics.
“I love playing for the country. I love playing for our people,” said Paes.
Despite his fondness for playing for India, it has not always been an easy ride for Paes.
The veteran has been paired with Rohan Bopanna in the men’s doubles in Rio despite his higher-ranked partner wanting to play originally with Saketh Myneni.
Paes was slotted in at the insistence of the All India Tennis Association (AITA) in a row which had echoes of a farce before the 2012 London Olympics 2012.
Back then, Mahesh Bhupathi was teamed with Bopanna in the men’s doubles despite Paes being in the top 10.
As part of a compromise, Paes, who had threatened to pull out of the Games, reluctantly played with Vishnu Vardhan in the men’s doubles while being controversially teamed with Sania Mirza in the mixed.
It was an unhappy experience all round.
Paes and Vardhan, who was ranked just below 300 in the world at the time, exited in the second round as did Bhupathi and Bopanna.
Paes and Mirza made it to the quarter-finals in the mixed, losing to eventual champions Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka.
Despite the controversies, nobody can doubt Paes’s longevity.
He was a Wimbledon and US Open junior singles champion and world number one in the boys division in 1990.
His bronze medal at Atlanta in 1996 was India’s first in an individual event in more than 40 years.
But it is doubles where Paes has carved out his timeless career.
He has 55 career titles, including eight Grand Slam men’s doubles trophies—three alongside Bhupathi with whom his relationship has veered between cordial and ice cold—and 10 in mixed.
His French Open triumph with Martina Hingis in June allowed him to add the mixed career Slam to his perfect collection of men’s doubles.
He has played with more than 100 partners in men’s doubles in his 25-year career—partnerships which include, however fleeting, the likes of Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
“I’m fearless about anything. I believe in myself. I believe in my partner,” Paes said.
Paes has also survived a worrying health scare to keep his career on track.
In 2003, he was hospitalised in Florida for a suspected brain tumour.
His illness was eventually diagnosed as a brain abscess but it was deemed serious enough to keep him off the tour for six months.
Away from tennis, Paes has also notched up a movie appearance, as a gangster on the run in the widely-panned 2013 Bollywood offering, Rajdhani Express.