NEW DELHI: There was a buzz inside the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association (DLTA) on Friday. Not on the centre court but on one of the side courts with multiple people waiting for selfies and autographs. And once you stepped inside the court, it seemed like a frame taken out from the past: a smiling and laughing Leander Paes doing his usual acrobatics while playing mock doubles match with partner Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan.
India’s Davis Cup team are in the capital preparing for their upcoming tie against Pakistan to be played in Nur-Sultan on November 29-30. After a two-and-half-hour practice session, this daily caught up with Paes, who is making a return to the Davis Cup after more than a year. The conversation ranged from his patriotic spirit, his meticulous attitude when it comes to preparation as well as his memories of the last encounter against the same opposition. Excerpts...
How does it feel to be back representing the country again?
It’s a great honour. I feel blessed to have this opportunity. My main role now is to motivate the youngsters in the team, to understand what they are going through and help them in that process. It is not just about winning my own match. I also need to ensure that everyone puts their best foot forward.
Did you expect the call from Rohit Rajpal (non-playing captain)?
To be honest, yes the call caught me off-guard. But it did not take long to say yes. Patriotism is something that is part of who I am as a person. But I also wanted to know what exactly my role entailed. It is one thing to just come in and win your own match but it is another thing to actually go and play in Islamabad and motivate other youngsters to come and play there. If we look at all our faujis (soldiers), they don’t ask where and when. We just play tennis and we should not ask where we are playing when it comes to playing for the flag.
Your season got over after the US Open in September. How long did you take to prepare and what all have you done to get ready?
It has taken me five weeks of hard fitness work to get ready. I know what it takes to win and remain fit. I have shown all these in the past. Obviously, it takes long and hard hours to do the same things at my age but I’m ready. For me, excellence in tennis is not just a job, it is a lifestyle. The very next morning after speaking to Rohit, I chalked out a plan and started preparations.
You also hold the record for most doubles victories in this competition. What keeps Leander going?
For starters, this tie (laughs). I have been playing for thirty years now in this competition and representing the nation is just as special a feeling as when I started out. For me, records do not matter. We have to win against Pakistan and also ensure we play to our full potential. India has to win!
What are your memories from your last encounter against Pakistan in 2006?
It was one of the most difficult yet memorable matches I have been a part of. The first thing that stands out from that encounter is the adversity. I was thrust into a difficult position in the fifth rubber, which incidentally I was not even supposed to play. I was sitting on the bench for the first two singles rubbers on Friday, then I played my doubles match on a Saturday against Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and Aqeel Khan. On Sunday, Prakash (Amritraj) ended up losing to Aisam. Rohan (Bopanna) did not play the fifth rubber for some reason. I had not played singles for a long time before that. I ended up suffering from cramps in the third and lost the fourth set 0-6. Down a break-point in the fifth, it was a historic fightback.
The situation between both India and Pakistan is obviously quite tense. But should sports and politics go hand in hand?
For me, sports & politics should not be mixed. Sport has the power to unite the world. I do understand the situation and political climate is quite complicated. But we have seen so many examples of a sport bringing people together irrespective of religion, caste, creed or any barrier.