For the first time in two decades, Leander Paes went a full year without winning a World Tour title or a Major. But the 44-year-old says he is not bogged down by it. He insists it will only be a matter of time before he gets back to winning ways with teammate Purav Raja. Swaroop Swaminathan was on hand to take notest’s less than 20 hours since Leander Paes lost in the opening round of the Tata Open Maharashtra but he is already out on court. It’s the beginning of another year on Tour, his 28th, 29th if you want to count 1990, when he spent playing only Davis Cup. He has achieved everything but Leander’s 2018 promises to be an interesting follow.
Last year was the first time he went without winning a World Tour event. Last year was the first time his age started showing. Last year was the first time he did not reach a Slam semifinal since 2000. Last year was the first time he was dropped from the Davis Cup squad in a generation. Last year was the first time he dropped to the Challengers to keep winning matches.
Fifteen minutes in the company of the 44-year-old and it’s obvious that he wants 2018 to follow a different path. The self-confidence never wavered but he wants to start winning the big stuff again. He openly admits that he has run out of things to reinvent but keeps going because of the joy the sport gives him. In an interview with Express, he also talks about money, fame and India’s new-age athletes among other things. Excerpts:
On the court
A newish partner going into 2018. Your thoughts and goals ahead of the new season.
I think it’s going to be a very interesting year. At the back end of last season, we (Purav Raja, his new partner, and him) went two weeks unbeaten. We did that after three months of hard work. Now, we have to catch our rhythm and carry on. Goals wise, I would say to get into the top 30 as individuals. To get a direct entry into the 500s and Masters you have to be in that bracket. It’s also because doubles has changed. Many of the top 20-30 singles players have started playing doubles. The no-ad scoring has helped and the super-breaker to decide the third set has also shortened matches.
The reasoning behind tying up with Raja?
For a couple of years, he had asked to play with me. We had played together in a Davis Cup tie against South Korea in Delhi and we did well. He has been my sparring partner in Mumbai for a few years. We had gone back and forth (dialogue about playing with each other) for a few years. It’s natural because he’s an ad court player and I am a deuce court player. We are both Indians and we practice together in the off-season.
What are the things you do before you enter into a new partnership?
You study their (potential teammate) games and watch a lot of videos. You already know pretty much how the person is playing and once you study how that person is playing (kind of game, movement and so on), you look at strengths and weaknesses. One person’s strength may be other person’s weakness so you try and work on your games –– fitness, mental and the technical aspects. You got to get better in all those three aspects to get the desired results.
You two did get those kinds of results but it was in the Challengers. Do you think you can convert those wins into something more substantial like winning 500s, Masters and Slams?
I think it’s a matter of time. With every partnership I have had – whether it was with Radek Stepanek or Martin Damn or Mahesh (Bhupathi) — it took some time. With Radek, we had to play and win some 250s until we actually won a Grand Slam. With Martin, we had to play some 250s and Challengers till we won a Masters Series at Indian Wells before we won a Slam. With Mahesh, we played four-and-a-half months of Challengers so that also took time. There is a learning curve with every team.
Off the court
If you ever had the opportunity to talk to a 17-year-old Leander Paes, what would you tell him about money, fame and life?
That’s a big question (laughs). Take fame and money with a pinch of salt. It comes and it goes. But I have been very conscientious because of my upbringing about the legacy that one leaves. Enjoy the ride just like I did. I just think I was tunnel-visioned since I was a kid. Probably that’s why I have achieved what I have achieved. I have had these blinkers on since I was 10 or something. To achieve excellence in something, you always have to them on (the blinkers).
Has being tunnel-visioned since a kid meant you, perhaps, did not enjoy playing as much as you would have liked?
Some of the aspects, yes. Sometimes you wake up with a fever and the thermometer says 103.5. You have a sore throat and a cold, your body is aching and you don’t want to be out there. Or you are in the middle of the tournament and you suddenly tear a stomach muscle or your rotator cuff is hurting. Or all of a sudden you feel really lonely. Sometimes you are just tired of the travel and you really miss home. Tennis is an individual sport... it’s a very lonely space trying to achieve excellence in.
When a few of the above happen and you don’t want to persevere, don’t want to play and don’t want to be out there... those blinkers automatically switch on. It kind of tells you: “Come on buddy, let’s go. You have put in the hard yards over all these years and you ain’t stopping now.” I have had those kinds of situations many times in my career. When I have either been in a hospital or have been injured or some adversity has come up in terms of politics or some nonsense. You just find a way to persevere and reinvent. Keep going.
You haven’t had the greatest of results of late (2017 was the first time he failed to win a World Tour level event since 1996). Have you started to doubt yourself about your level?
Not at all (starting to doubt yourself). I won a Grand Slam less than 18 months ago (mixed doubles at the French Open in 2016). When you have won 18 Slams, there is no doubt. I have nothing to prove to you or to anybody else. The point is you have done everything so now the question is reinvention and motivation.
You basically go back to your team, I have had a team with me for ages (his fitness trainer, for example, has been with him for 24 years while another member of his team has travelled with him for 28 years). There is also my dad (Vece), who is mentor and guru. We keep trying to reinvent new things to do and as we have reinvented over the last 30 years, we have suddenly run out of things to reinvent.
You run out of goals you want to achieve. I think now I enjoy playing tennis. The lifestyle is fun, the travel is hard but the practice and training make the slog worth it.
Tennis has changed a lot since you first entered. In keeping with the times, how has your preparation – both mentally and physically – evolved?
As you get older, the preparations are now based on fitness and endurance. The mental part of the game, I am a master at. Now it’s about nurturing new partnerships and to get the partnership to get there (the standard required to win). That’s the trick.
Mentally, it has gotten tougher but I have a strong mind. There are so many different methods like vipassana, meditation, yoga, visualisation techniques and so on. Most Indian athletes are considered submissive but there are a few of us who have achieved excellence to such a high level we show how mentally tough we are.
We have been able to cut through all the adversity and the obstacles life throws at us and we are winning. But Western training methods — like good fitness, health and a proper diet — also matter. At the end of the day, your performance is not based on one match, it’s based on one tournament or 10 over years or 20 years. In my case, I have been so blessed it’s based over 32 years.
You mention the fact that Indian athletes are considered submissive. Is that why our athletes don’t really challenge the establishment (people in power)?
That’s changed, right? Take a look at Saina (Nehwal) or a (PV) Sindhu, they play with lots of aggression, passion for the game. Look at Virat (Kohli) or an MS Dhoni, great captains of the game. If you are talking about taking on the establishment, what’s the need to go against the establishment when things work for you? Even then, if you look at it, Virat stands for a lot. The way he conducts himself and the way he plays. We all have our different styles, right?
Once you retire, will you take up full-time coaching (he has been spending a considerable amount of time lately with Ramkumar Ramanathan)?
I have done this (talking to youngsters) for years. My doors have been open (coaching, talking to younger players about the sport) for a very long time. On full-time coaching, if the right player comes around, yes.