It’s near midnight when the phone rings in my hotel room. I have almost nodded off but when the man on the other side is Leander Paes, tennis writers like me do tend to wake up pretty quick. “Come to the room, if you’re free. Let’s chat.”
It’s two days before India’s Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan in Bengaluru (7-9 April). Paes has just been told by Mahesh Bhupathi, the new Indian tennis team captain, that his services won’t be required.
Paes and Bhupathi made India’s most successful tennis pair, with a win-loss record of 303-103. Nicknamed the Indian Express, their chest bumps after winning points on court were a sight to behold. But not only have they fallen out, they have been part of several public controversies for the better part of two decades.
It’s the first time in 27 years that Paes has been dropped from the squad and I expect a man ready to spew against a system that has sidelined him. Strangely enough, I find him totally calm. He gives me a big grin and says: “This chapter (Davis Cup) in my life seems to be over. However, I am far from done just yet.”
Over the next couple of days, a lot of things would be said in the media for and against Paes.
“Let’s talk about the positives,” says Paes. “There is never a need to respond to accusations and allegations as history speaks for itself. My legacy can’t be besmirched by a bunch of people making a load of noise.”
With a career win-loss record of 90-35, Paes is the fourth greatest all-time player in the history of the Davis Cup competition. He was set to become the greatest doubles player in Davis Cup given the facile challenge that Uzbekistan posed. He already holds the doubles record with Italian Nicola Pietrangeli. Both are tied at 42-12 (win-loss).
Over the years, Paes has constantly reinvented himself as a player. Each time his tennis bag yields new gizmos for training, new aids for longevity and an array of bottles with myriad pills and powders. “Keeps things fun,” he smiles as he tosses a resistance band my way. “Use that to get the crick out of your neck.”
Paes is still looking to be on court—there are a host of projects that will keep him busy. Edited excerpts from an interview:
After 27 years, your Davis Cup journey seems to be over...
I am not the sort who backs off from a challenge. If I am able to prove my prowess on the Tour and notch good results, it’ll be interesting to see how I can be denied a slot. Sport is about hard work, tall talk alone doesn’t mean anything.
At 43, you aren’t getting any younger...
Indeed. But I have put in the hard work and I keep doing that even now. My longevity is not a freak occurrence. It is the result of systematic work; it’s about scientific training with regular body tests to identify need-specific supplements. The life of a professional athlete is about discipline.
But it must get tougher?
It does. The body breaks down more. It needs to be cajoled more. I need to be careful about how I plan my travel and my playing schedule. The little bits add up.
What’s the secret to this longevity?
Lifestyle. I live clean and, more importantly, I think positive.
I don’t smoke or drink. My body does not have to fight to clean itself of the toxins that most people seem to be unable to stay away from. Then, I have this knack for flipping a switch in my head that shuts down all the negativity stemming from a particular issue. I can flip over to something positive, like a memory of spending time with my daughter and, best of all, I sleep easy. No woe is able to keep me up unless I am willing to let it.
So what are you playing for now?
I have this notion in my head that 20 Grand Slam trophies will be better than the 18 that I have. So I am focusing on that. It should be possible, no?
Mixed doubles maybe, but men’s doubles is tougher.
Yes, I haven’t been able to get a partnership going and that’s what is hindering me. In mixed (doubles), I have Martina Hingis backing me. I do need a similar solid partnership in men’s (doubles).
Realistically speaking, tennis won’t really last too long. What are your career options beyond the sport?
I have three solid offers from national federations abroad to run their tennis programmes. There may be a TV show in the offing. The government is keen to use my experience to help bring about a sporting revolution in the country. I really enjoy commentating and breaking down the game for TV audiences...there is a lot in the pipeline.
Yes, but won’t tennis stay the primary focus? Tennis coaching?
I firmly believe that human beings have the gift to keep reinventing themselves. Just that most of us are too lazy to tap the reservoirs of talent that God gives us. Also, I believe that the path to success is similar across fields. Discipline, dedication, extra hours of sweat...these are common denominators to excel, no matter what one’s field. I have major plans to help produce the next generation of tennis players but the Leander Paes of the future won’t just be confined to the field of sport. Of course, my tennis legacy stays important to me and I’ll ensure it stays right up there in my priorities.
What would you do differently to groom future champions?
To start with, most training programmes don’t seem to figure that anybody can hit the ball, but it’s actually about being strong enough to keep hitting it at that high-intensity level for hours on end. For that to happen, fitness has to be the primary focus. I have carried on for so long on account of the scientific training I have done. I fear most of our coaches do not have the kind of knowledge that is required to build the foundation that a future champion requires. It will be my endeavour to contribute this crucial know-how at the grass-roots level. And it won’t be just for tennis, it will be pan-India, pan-sport.
You have also tried your hand at acting...
(Laughs) Don’t remind me of that. Perhaps I am just not fair enough to be a Bollywood hero (laughs again). But there is more to show business than movies.