Practising his strokes for over seven million times has given him an unforgettable muscle memory and an uncompromising diet has kept his enviable fitness intact in an astonishing 25-year long career but Leander Paes is not training the way he used to train 20 years ago.
The 43-year-old has just finished another season in his glorious career and he is not finished yet. Rather, he has set himself a new target – taking his Grand Slam tally to 20.
Passion for the game and a knack for creating history has kept him going but it also involves pain of hard work that may become difficult to sustain year after year. But the legendary athlete keeps himself motivated and continues to find ways to train and hone his body in a way that he can be at par with the younger lot. Never in his career, Paes suffered a major injury that stopped him from playing. Though a few minor injuries such as a rolled ankle have troubled him in the past. So, how has he trained over the years to get such supreme fitness?
“Now it’s very different than how I used to train 20 years ago,” Paes, winner of 18 Grand Slam titles, said in an interview. “20 years ago I was trying to get lot of muscle memory, which means I had to hit 50-75 serves every day. Sometime kick serves on the ad court sometimes slice serves on the deuce court. Sharp serve down the T and a low backhand volley. I had to get 3 million repetitions into all the parts of the body, so they remember it. So that when I am under pressure, that repetition happens automatically. Muscle memory means when I am playing Wimbledon semifinals, and I am under pressure serving at 4-5, you don’t choke,” he explained.
And what does he do now? “Now I have to protect myself from overuse injuries. There is a lot more emphasis on fitness and rehab. When I was younger I was putting seven hours on the court a day. Now, I am putting less hours on the court, so that I protect certain joints, like the rotator cuffs, the knees, the lower back,” he said.
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“In 28 years, I would have hit 7-8 million times each stroke, so the same rotator cuff tendon, you don’t want to hurt. The same patella tendon, you don’t want to hurt by playing more on hard courts, the same hamstring, lower-back, the location of vertebrate. Lot of tennis strokes come from core and you don’t want to injure that.”
Paes, who completed his Career Slam in mixed doubles at this year’s French Open with Swiss great Martina Hingis, said there are a few people who are responsible for his strict schedule all these years. “My father plans my fitness and he always changes program every three months. Bob Carmichael and Rick Leach (his coaches) are instrumental in who I am as athlete. So my father, trainer Sanjay Singh and two coaches modified my training, kept me injury free.”
Paes revealed how and why he turned a vegetarian, what good effects it had on his body and training and how again he tweaked his eating habits at the age of 25. “I used to eat everything. When I was 12 in Chennai I had fitness coach Dave O’meara. He converted me into a vegetarian by teaching me the effects of meat in the body. I was veggie for 13 years. He said, ‘It’s gonna be sluggish’. If you see the big cats, they have to sleep whole day to digest the meat. Meat takes 72 hours to digest. Vegetables, and fruit, the fiber digests much faster.
“I loved the result of being vegetarian. But my body was not getting Omega 3. I was not getting the zinc, magnesium, and the iron in my body. Because my fat percentage was low, every time I played a match, that was over in three sets, which means over two hours, I was getting full body cramps. So I started taking fish, I was only taking salmon. I was allowing good fats but no bad fats like ghee and butter. Till today I eat lot of fish,” he elaborated on his diet over the years.
Paes said he was blessed to have parents, who themselves are athletes. “My father (Vece Paes) is a doctor and an athlete, this combination is luck. He educated me on how to enhance body naturally. My athleticism, mental training has come from home. We talk about sport at the dining table at home. I had champion parents, they taught me how to handle pressure and how to get form back,” he said.
Paes also suggested that no player needs to copy any other athlete. “Everyone has different God given skills. Roger Federer has technique, Rafa Nadal has power, Novak Djokovic has flexibility and mind. Michael Chang never tried serving like Stefan Edberg but his speed was great, modeled his training to enhance his God given talent.”
A few would know that it’s not just the speed of the tennis ball that enthralls Paes. “I love bikes and riding off, feeling the wind up against your face. I love speed. But you have to be careful. I have two (bikes) now but over the years I had 7-8 bikes,” he said without mentioning the names.
He is also an avid reader. “I read to distress. I like autobiographies, I don’t like fiction. I have read many scriptures as well,” he said.