I have had 95 partners. I didn’t choose all of them: Leander Paes

Leander Paes on how he keeps himself fit at 40,and his interest in films.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Published:December 15, 2013 2:15 am

At this Idea Exchange,tennis ace Leander Paes talks about how rural India or small towns can produce champions,his plans to open sports science centres,how he keeps himself fit at 40,and his interest in films. The session was moderated by Senior Sports Correspondent Mihir Vasavda

Mihir Vasavda: You,Sachin Tendulkar and Viswanathan Anand were born around the same time and your careers also virtually kicked off simultaneously in 1988-89. And this year,you won your 14th grand slam,Sachin played his 200th Test match,and Vishy fought for his world championship title. What’s with this coincidence?

I think we need to ask our parents (laughs). There’s something unique about longevity of all of us. I think that comes from the passion for the game. For me,my passion for fitness,health and lifestyle is all tailor-made to the goals I have. Over a span of 25 years,I have reached 31 grand slam finals. As much as people talk about the wins,I am looking at the consistency of excellence. To me,that’s more important. At some point I know my days will be done. There will be a youngster who’ll say ‘I’ve got you,I’m better than you’. We talk about 1973 being a great year,maybe there was a ’93 that will be a great year and that kid is just getting ready to turn pro.

Sandeep Dwivedi: How important is it to choose your doubles partner? Do you think that people who don’t get along,who aren’t the best of friends,can be great doubles partners?

Yes,they can. I’ve had 95 doubles partners in men’s game alone and I have not personally chosen each one of them. I may have chosen 77-78 of them. In life,there are certain chance meetings that happen. What’s important is to understand the other person’s strengths and weaknesses. So,when you get into that work environment,just to get that underlying trust,to say that today we’re going to partner each other and I’ve got your back no matter what happens — whether we win or lose,whether we make ourselves look silly on the centre court of Wimbledon with a million people watching us on television,or whether it’s to tease each other. When you get to understand the nuances of somebody,that’s friendship. But when it turns into business,you use that friendship — and ‘use’ is not necessarily a bad terminology — you use that underlying understanding,that bond,the relationship to bring out the best in the other person.

Sandeep Dwivedi: How do you look back at your relationship with Mahesh Bhupathi?

I am a complete optimist. With anything in life,I choose to look at the positives in it. The best thing that we did as two young men was we proved that as Indians,we can be world beaters. We proved that. Many people believed we could not win grand slams,but we went out there and won. We were World No. 1 and everyone was chasing us in the record books to win four grand slams or be in four grand slam finals in the same year.

Srinath Rao: How much of yourself and Mahesh do you see in Bryan brothers?

I think they are the best doubles pair. The reason I believe they are the best doubles team ever is that bio-mechanically and technically they are the soundest team that could have been born like that. They have an unbelievable understanding of where they stand on the court. Some people don’t know who’s Bob and who’s Mike because they look alike. To me,the Bryans are greater than the Woodies,Hesh and myself,(Jacco) Eltingh and (Paul) Haarhuis,and McEnroe and Fleming because of their excellence over such a longevity of time. The reason I hold them at a notch a little higher is also because of their brotherhood. They get through tough times and adversity as well,always sticking together.

Shubhangi Khapre: Personally,which has been a more satisfying and challenging win — singles at Olympics or doubles at grand slams?

I think achieving my Olympic medal was the most challenging. Because most people look at it as one match. For me,it was a whole lifetime of preparing for it. I think the Olympic medal stands for so much in my family. Each and every person in my family played a part for me to get there. It’s really hard to explain the amount of things that go into achieving one piece of bronze.

Bharat Sundaresan: You spoke about the 95 male partners you’ve had,but how different is it or what is it that you look for in a mixed doubles partner?

I have played with roughly 23 mixed doubles partners. There are certain aspects of personality where women are million times better than we guys can be. Their intuitiveness is phenomenal. I can use Martina’s intuition on,‘Hey where do you think this serve’s going?’. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve asked her on a big point because return of serve is not my strength. I would ask,‘Marty where is this serve going?’. And you will not believe how many times she’s right. Just by knowing a fraction of a second earlier about where the ball’s coming,and leaning that way,gives me a better shot at it. That was one of the reasons we were so successful.

Krishna uppuluri*: Pullela Gopichand,after his play days,became a very famous coach and he’s nurtured so many young players. Will we see Leander Paes doing that after his playing days?

Hundred per cent. It’s already in the works. I’ve already worked at it. And it’s not only in this country,I’ve looked at opening sports science centres at different places. My dad (Vece Paes,a hockey Olympian) had a tennis academy and he did really well. Dad has been looking after different sports for the last 40 years. In one context I’m really blessed because I have my dad and mom a minute down the road from me. Dad’s got amazing knowledge. I’m saying this not just because I’m his son,I’m saying this as a professional athlete who’s still winning grand slams and achieving at the highest echelons of the game at 40. He’s got an amazing knowledge of sports medicine,fitness,diet,lifestyle,simplicity of thought,an amazing brain,and is a psychologist who mentors us athletes. So,one of the things I would love to do as a son is create a legacy for him.

Mihir Vasavda: When we look at the Europeans,Australians and the Americans,their physique and power — is it purely genetic or is it the way they train?

I think there are two things working there. One,there is a lot of genetics involved. If we look,whether it’s the north of India,if we look whether it’s the Adivasi race,if we look at some of our modern athletes — and I can name a few — a lot of our modern athletes are coming from rural areas… To me the biggest example of that is M S Dhoni. If you look at his technique,it’s not classic copy-book technique. But it’s so powerful and so potent that in a World Cup tournament he can turn a match on its head. If you look at his personality,his confidence,you would not expect someone from a rural area to have that. But because of the ruggedness of Indian rural areas,of our smaller towns,they are tough and rugged not just in terms of genetics but also in terms of the mind,in terms of personality. He really is an example about how we can produce champions in this country — not just from Mumbai,Calcutta,Delhi,Bangalore and Chennai,but also from rural areas. That’s where our real talent lies. So is it genetic? Maybe a little bit.

Shivani Naik: Do you have the patience to train a 12-year-old or a 14-year-old who is not as talented or as hardworking as you were?

I didn’t think I was talented already. So that wouldn’t be an issue,I have a lot of patience.

Shivani Naik: How do you deal with someone who does not bring that kind of commitment to the sport?

If I can change it,if I can make it better,then I will spend time to make it better. If I feel I cannot change it,then I’ll just keep peace. Some people call it choosing your battles,I call it recognising the person you’re dealing with.

Shivani Naik: We use words like ‘revenge’ and ‘grudge matches’ very often when we write. Do these things normally come through against any player?

Not for me. I know that some athletes have it,I don’t. For me a match is a match. I’m going to beat you as hard as I can. Because if you’re beating me,you’re taking lunch money from Aiyanna (Paes’s daughter). Doesn’t matter if it’s a grudge match or not.

Shahid Judge: You mentioned that fitness is your passion. At 40,has it become harder for you to stay match fit compared to what it was when you were younger?

The rehab has become harder,longer. I spend a lot more hours now than I had to as a kid. You know,as a kid I was very disciplined,and that discipline allowed me to be wild. I had to skip 10,000 skips everyday. Now,both my heel bones are broken. They’ve cracked. There’s an inch-and-a-half of calcification on each heel bone. When you put your foot down,when you wake up in the morning and if that feels like you’ve got a knife in it every morning,you got to do rehab. So,the training now is a lot more about injury prevention.

Bharat Sundaresan: Going back to the original question about you,Sachin Tendulkar and Viswanathan Anand having started so many years ago,is longevity something you can aspire for,especially if you start your professional sporting career so young,or is it something that you don’t think about and it just happens?

I actually thought I’d retire at 27. I had a conversation with Jimmy Connors in 1991 when he did really well at the US Open. I asked him,‘Sir,how are you playing so well even now? I mean,what do you do in your daily life or your professional life to still preserve the body?’. And what he told me then taught me a big lesson. He said,‘Every single match,I wear a brand new shoe’. It means if he’s playing 365 matches in a year,his sponsor gives him 365 different shoes. He also said that he wears double socks or socks that are very thick. And why he did that was because his generation was the first to transfer from national playing fields of clay court,grass court,to synthetic surfaces. Synthetic surfaces are really hard. So,for your knee joint,your ankle joint,your back — the wear-and-tear is a lot more. So the longevity,what he was talking about,was in his equipment. I didn’t think I would play beyond 27,but when you start learning tricks from Connors and Martina,you do well.

Tabassum Barnagarwala: Everybody has a back-up option as a career. Did you have a second choice or option?

I’m actually a talented football player. I got a scholarship to one of the top football teams in the world when I was 12. Sometimes it’s important in life not to only go with your strengths. Football comes naturally because I have Bengali and Portuguese blood,my mother is Bengali,dad’s from Goa. As a child,I used to sleep with my football boots.

Alaka Sahani: You have a life away from tennis. You have acted in films and,if I’m not mistaken,you’ve been in fashion shows. How often do these temptations of glamour come in your way,and how do you respond to them?

I was offered my first movie in 1996 — The Story of Lion Heart. My name Leander means the Lion Heart. It was a cliched kind of story — rags to riches,young Indian boy growing up in an environment that does not have the infrastructure to nurture a champion,then found his way with family support to achieve excellence. At some point of time,I will write a book and make that into a movie. I’ve been offered modelling,advertising commercials since I was nine or 10 years old. I shut it down a long time ago,around 15 years ago,because I felt that I was going to come into the movies. And I did. I released Rajdhani Express earlier this year.

Alaka: Are we going to see you in more movies?

If the right project comes around,I will do it. My creative juices are towards theatre or films… There’s a big clash. We have conversations at home where I say that when I’m done with tennis,I want to go and do this movie,and they all keep laughing. Because they know I’m going to come back to tennis. When you’re doing something you have to strive for excellence,you have to strive to be the best at it. Just finished a graphic-novel that is on the edit floor. It’s more an under-cover spy agent kind of movie or book rather.

Transcribed by Mihir Vasavda * EXIMS student

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