Advancing years are always the biggest worry for sportspersons, but for some high achievers like Leander Paes, age is inconsequential.
After winning his eighth men’s doubles Grand Slam title, Paes pooh-poohed suggestions that he might be getting long in the tooth and instead affirmed that he had set his sights on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. By that time he will be 43.
Ordinarily, such desire in a sportsperson would have been met with some scepticism, but with Paes it is prudent to wait and watch, for he is never-say-die kind of a player. At 40, he is already the oldest male to win a Grand Slam and doesn’t look like he has had enough.
While not quite in the same league as Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Björn Borg, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic et al, where the singles event is concerned, Paes has nevertheless left his impact on tennis. With his brilliant skills in doubles play but even more with his passion and big heart that have seen him overcome sundry adverse situations.
Starting off by winning the junior Wimbledon title in 1990, he has played Davis Cup for 22 years, participated in six straight Olympics (winning a bronze in the 1996 Atlanta Games) and his 14 Grand Slam (doubles and mixed doubles) titles have been spread over three decades. This shows not just consistency of effort, but also supreme fitness and motivation.
The past 12-18 months have been particularly trying for Paes, the controversy surrounding the selection to the Olympics last year dominating anything he did with racquet in hand. He did not do much on the court, of course, but his triumph in the US Open on Sunday has forced those who were ready with a requiem for him to change their tune.
Interestingly, Paes is one of three sporting prodigies from India who has gone on to conquer great heights, all more or less of the same vintage and for all of whom this is a crucial year. The other two are Viswanathan Anand and Sachin Tendulkar.
Anand, around four years older than Paes, has been five times world chess champion. He burst into the limelight by winning the national sub-junior title in 1983 when he was just 14. By 15, he was International Master and by 18, the first Indian Grandmaster. Before he was 31, Anand was Fide (World Chess Federation) World Champion.
Anand’s aggressive approach on the board does not diminish his successes a whit. Indeed, the speed at which he plays, allied to his impeccable technique, mark his genius. Add to this his genial temperament, quite in contrast to some other great chess maestros, and Anand’s stature in the sport has achieved rare loftiness; in fact cult status.
But Anand faces a serious threat this November when he squares up against the world No.1 Magnus Carlsen in Chennai. Though defending champion, Anand is now ranked No.6 in the world. Moreover, Carlsen is just 22, and brimming with the energy and optimism of youth.
Whether Anand has the hunger, stamina and resolve to withstand the assault of “street fighter” Carlsen—as Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay called him when previewing the championship at the Sports Journalists’ Association of Mumbai awards function last week—makes for one of the marquee sporting contests this year.
Of the three, however, it would be fair to say that Tendulkar has faced the most intense scrutiny in the past couple of years because cricket engages almost the entire country. As a consequence, he is also under the most pressure.
Only a few months older than Paes, questions are now being asked whether Tendulkar, at 40, has enough fuel left in the tank to perform like he had been known to since 1989 when he made his Test debut as a 16-year-old prodigy.
The history of cricket shows a fair number who have played beyond 40, though this has been diminishing in the past half century as the workload on players has increased, what with limited overs matches and tournaments occupying substantial days in the itineraries today.
That Tendulkar’s usual run-guzzling form has entered into a kind of drought zone since the 2011 World Cup is evident easily from the scorebooks. The much-touted 100th century took an excruciatingly long time after the 99th, but perhaps more pertinently, he has not scored a Test century in over two years.
As the hype and hoopla over Tendulkar’s impending 200th Test match increases, so do questions and concerns about his form and fitness. Is he still battle-hungry or battle-weary? Does the flame inside him have a last flicker, or is he extending his career to his own detriment?
Everybody has his/her theory on the matter but to quote the most important dictum of journalism, while opinion is free, fact is sacrosanct. Even as the hows and whys of Tendulkar’s future are being hotly debated, he has resumed net practice and physical conditioning for the Champions League and the series against West Indies ahead.
Just how the next few months pan out for him (and Anand) remain to be seen, but they hold out great promise nonetheless. If they can pull out a leaf from Paes’ book, age might be no more than a number.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.