In an interview with The Indian Express, Leander Paes talks about his inclusion in the squad for the Asian Games, missing the clay season and his hopes for the Tokyo Olympics. Excerpts:
You will compete in the Asian Games this year after missing the last two editions. Your thoughts on returning?
The last one I played was in Doha in 2006 and this year’s Asian Games in Indonesia will be a new challenge. We have a full strength team and as we get closer to the Games, we will work on the combinations and pairings. We have got youngsters like Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ramkumar Ramanathan apart from Rohan (Bopanna) and Divij (Sharan). Among the girls, Ankita Raina and Prarthna Thombare have shown good form in the recent months.
Having Yuki Bhambri in the singles would have been great but aiming for the US Open main draw is important as well. It is always a tough decision to balance and not easy to decide. For me, Asian Games is a important event since I am not playing the full calendar. I have cut down the number of tournaments and will be playing in two tournaments this season. I will be playing in Wimbledon before the Asian Games.
You will be turning 45 in a week’s time. Are you thinking about competing at the Tokyo Olympics?
At this point of my career, I have to enhance my own training to keep staying fitter, younger and stronger in terms of my game. It is important for me to keep pushing my body and fitness levels and keep learning new methods of training. That was the reason I visited Abhinav Bindra targeting Performance Centre on Saturday.
Over the last 30 years in my career, I have been able to master the mental game of hard perseverance. For me, it is very important to stay at peace mentally after such a long career and able to target smaller goals. There was a reason I missed the whole clay court season. I have to maximize my performance in whatever few goals I have. At this point, it is very hard to set new goals. I try to figure new targets and achieve these goals. After you win 15-16 Grand Slams or play in 6-7 Olympics, they just become numbers for you mentally. I play because I am passionate about playing for the country and playing my tennis. I enjoy the lifestyle of it… About Tokyo Olympics, that is the big goal. But that too will come after the small goals. It is still 2018 and there is 2019 and 2020 to come.
Last year, you were dropped from the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan. You returned for China tie and notched up a record win. How was it to comeback after what happened and how do you see the changes in the Davis Cup format?
I think the important part is to put the best best team for the country in Davis Cup. Records and individual performance are the byproducts of such a longevity in this sport. World record happened not because of an year or two, it came after three decades. And Davis Cup is about putting the best team forward for the country. I am able to help the team to win like in China, where me and Rohan won the doubles after being 0-2 down in the tie. Playing with Rohan was great fun . And that too in the new format where you play the matches in two day as compared to earlier format of three days.
Playing three matches in a day is not easy for the team too. As one of the senior most players, it is my role to motivate the other players and to bring the best out of all of us. Davis Cup creates pressure in a different ways and to spend time with the bys on the bench and practice is something I still cherish. About the new format, I think it is relevant to modern sport. Some traditionalists would like five sets and some like three-day format. If one looks at the work requirement of a professional player, he will understand that it is not a seasonal sport. Players play for more than 45 weeks out of 55 weeks and new format is very smart. You play Davis Cup matches on Friday and Saturday and use Sunday as travel day before playing on the Tour on Monday. I think there was a charm in playing in home and away ties. It brings different emotions and skill set and it makes a big difference.
How do you see the progress made by Ramkumar, Yuki and Sumit Nagal in the last few years?
I think Yuki has played very good in singles in the last one year. He had some big wins and has made to the main draw of the opens. You have also give credit to a player like Ramkumar. A lot of people are talking about Dominic Thiem playing Rafael Nadal in French Open final… Ramkumar beat him last year in Antalaya and that too on grass.
Sumit Nagal is another good talent. Now more Indian players are on the tour than they were before. But they need to be all-court players. When we talk of tennis, it is individual sport and unlike cricket and other sports where the federation arrange the tours and all, professional players have to arrange on their own. I believe the TOPS scheme also came as a big relief for the top tennis players. Talk about London or Rio Olympics, it helped us all.