Leander Paes sprints, almost casually, from the centre mark on the baseline to each corner of the service line – Spider Drills. Once the 44-year-old has finished a set, it’s his doubles partner Purav Raja’s turn. Raja shows much more intensity in his sprints than the veteran, and finishes his set faster. He walks around court, trying to catch his breath, but still is ready to start the second set.
The doubles partners have spent over three weeks in the off-season period working on improving their fitness before tackling the tour in the 2018 season. But apart from just improving their game, Raja has another source of motivation. “I’m 12 years younger (than Paes) and not better than him. So that just makes me feel like, ‘what am I doing?'” says the 32-year-old. “So I want to win every race, I want to win at every gym session. I see Leander do some squats, and I want to beat him. I’m younger, mentally fitter, so I push myself.”
A few months back, the world no 60 would never fit the mould of what a tennis player looks like. The sport has become brutal in its physical demands from players – you need to be a better athlete than player to succeed. And Raja has begun the journey to work his way into building an athletic physique.
“I’ve lost about three inches around the waist, so everything is a little loose for me,” he says, matter-of-factly. “This off-season wasn’t for weight loss though, it was to put on muscle.”
Pairing up with Paes meant that both would need to work harder on their physical fitness, especially since they hold similar playing styles. As volleying experts, both tend to stay up near the net while leaving the back court and running work for the partner. Now they have to share the slugging.
“Purav has good intuition and reads the game very well, but we both have to work on our fitness and teamwork,” says Paes. “The court positioning is something I have to get sharper with, and he’s big and strong, so he has to work on his speed.”
Still, the pair has managed to rake in a few decent results in the nine events they’ve played together. They did manage a semi-final finish at the ATP 250 St Petersburg Open, and finished off the season with two consecutive Challenger titles.
Their trainer Jake Nalepa, who joined them in August, was with them during those wins. But in Raja’s case, Nalepa was dealing with a player who hadn’t quite been through the physical grind before. “It’s very difficult for anyone to go from doing something that you have done for so many years, to something you haven’t done before. So we had to make changes gradually,” he says. “Once we got over one threshold, we did another thing. So there was constant improvement.”
While still on tour, Raja was prescribed exercises and drills, but in limited quantities. But once the trio got back to Mumbai for their pre-season training, there was a greater focus on fitness rather than tennis.
“Now I’m actually enjoying the fitness almost as much as the tennis,” says Raja. “If I don’t do my tennis in a day, that’s okay. But if I don’t do fitness sessions then I don’t feel good. It’s a mentality change rather than physical.”
The diet has changed too. “I used to like having canned juice, I thought that was reasonably healthy. Now I can’t,” he laments. “I have a lot more protein drinks for sure, green drinks. So lots of more protein in my life now.”
And the self motivation has always been there, stemmed from the competition both Paes and Raja have between themselves. Nalepa remembers Raja covering 200 yards during a rowing exercise drills, and Paes wouldn’t stop till he broke that mark, till Raja would increase the distance again. “I’ve never had to worry about pushing them to work because they push themselves,” says Nalepa. “The only thing is I have to make sure they don’t over-exert themselves and get injured.”
The physical changes are apparent. Raja has toned his otherwise chubby look, particularly at the mid-riff. He claims not to have noticed the changes, but has seen himself move better and faster on court.
Traditionally a touch player, his shots now boast more power. “My touch is only good if my power is good. If I can’t make them (opponents) go back to the baseline, then I can’t beat them because they will always come forward.”
Despite his slow movement on court earlier, Raja has always been a player blessed with quick reflexes that make him near impenetrable at the net – skills rivaled only by Paes. But he was never the best runner.
Now, he’s added that dimension. “Every day I feel like a better athlete.”