Leander Paes – Like a rolling stone

Leander Paes on why a city that made him almost give up on tennis is closest to his heart.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi | Published:October 6, 2013 5:03 am

For the last 23 years,whenever he has travelled to New York,Leander Paes has stayed at the same apartment and eaten at the same places. It’s a routine developed over years,one he looks forward to every season. It’s his second home. He quickly corrects you: “The world is my second home,considering the amount I travel.”

The big,bad world of professional sports can be cruel for the faint-hearted. Waking up every Monday in a new city to begin a new week on the tour has a charm early on in an athlete’s career. But it soon becomes drudgery. “It’s the hardest part. Tennis is an expensive sport as far as travel goes. And you have to travel a lot as there’s only one tournament in a year in India. It is also a very individual sport and it can get very lonely on the tour,” he says.

Paes,40,won his 14th Grand Slam doubles title last month when he won the US Open,partnering Czech Republic’s Radek Stepanek. In doing so,he became the oldest man to win a major championship in the Open era. It’s a record he cherishes. Like all sportsmen,he plays for records. But unlike most,he makes no bones about it. Winning keeps him going. Records keep him hungry. “They motivate me. After you retire,what remains with you are your records,your trophies. It is a testimony to the hard work you’ve put in,the tears you’ve shed and the battles you’ve won. Not just on the court,” says Paes.

In his 23 years as a pro athlete,there’s hardly any corner of the world Leander hasn’t played at. Which is the city closest to your heart,you ask him,expecting to hear New York,London or Paris. “Wolfsburg,” he says with a smile.

It was a chilly night in Wolfsburg,the famous automobile hub in Germany. Paes,18 years old,and like any other athlete going through the grind,got an allowance of $500 from his family to facilitate his entry in five tournaments. “In those days,the biggest problem for an Indian tennis player trying to go international was that he was only allowed $750 from the government. We used to buy his air tickets for the five tournaments on the circuit. Then we gave him $500 and the challenge for him was to win his money on tour. By the second or third tournament,if he hadn’t won anything,he had to pack up and come home,” Vece Paes,his father,says.

That year,1991,was perhaps the toughest for Paes,not least because it was also his first as a pro. The year before,as a junior,he had lost a match,was ranked number one and,as he puts it,was “king of the hill.” But the big league was another game. “Pro tennis was so competitive,so physically and mentally exhausting. I was 18 at the time and I was playing guys who were 25 or 27. They were tough,rugged players…6-foot-3,6-foot-5 (tall)…Germans,Austrians,Americans…tough guys. I was getting beaten up quite badly,” he says.

So when the teenager reached Wolfsburg that winter,all he had with him was $100. He couldn’t afford a hotel so he spoke to the dressing room attendant,requesting him to let him spend the night there. The aged attendant,who spoke no English,insisted he wasn’t authorised to let Paes sleep in the players’ changing area. It was only after a lot of persuasion and a cup of steaming coffee that the attendant relented. “He was crying when he phoned me later,” says Vece.

“That winter,I came back home in Calcutta and threw my racquets into a corner. I’d had enough. I told my dad I am done,” Paes says. “Dad didn’t say a word. And the silent treatment worked. Eight weeks later,I started missing the life of an athlete and I found myself back on the road,chasing my dream.”

Vece smiles when talking about that incident now. But deep down,he is worried about his son. “His smile gives you a false impression that he is happy. But he is quite lonely and emotional and that worries us now. Earlier,we didn’t see it,” says the father. Paes adds: “That’s why I act,I cook. When I am away from the monotony of playing tennis,away from the mundane lifestyle of a pro athlete,I like to experiment. Back home,Aiyanna (his daughter) and I bake a lot…cupcakes,apple pies. On tour,I cook for my team. You need to keep yourself occupied.”

He recently bought a couple of old-fashioned wooden racquets,one of which belongs to the American,Dwight F Davis,after whom the Davis Cup is named. “I keep an eye open for auctions of tennis memorabilia. When I am away from home,this is one of the things I enjoy,” Paes says. His target is to match the collection of his coach Rick Leach,who has bought nearly 1,000 racquets from auctions. “I use them for shadow practice. Because they are so much heavier than modern-day racquets,they help in improving my reflexes.” In his quest for records,quick reflexes are an element Paes can’t afford to compromise on. He relies on lightning fast hand speed and deft touches — a craft honed over three decades,anachronistic in this era of brute power.

The target for Leander now is to become the first Indian to take part in seven consecutive Olympics. “Earlier,the target for us was five Olympics. We were under the impression that the record for most Olympics appearances was held by (hockey legend) Leslie Claudius,who took part four times. We couldn’t beat him in the number of gold medals so we thought we would go for five Olympics,” Vece says. “Then we heard that Randhir Singh (shooter) had represented India in six Olympics. So we had to target seven appearances. These are motivational targets more than anything.”

Martina Navratilova,one of Paes’s closest confidantes and his biggest source of inspiration,holds the record for being the oldest player to win a major at age 49 (2006,US Open). Will he hang around for another decade to break it? “Maybe,” he says,laughing. “Right now,mentally,I feel I am just 23. Another 10 years shouldn’t be a problem then,no?”

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