With tennis in 2020 almost lost due to COVID-19 & Olympics postponed, Leander Paes says he will reevaluate his career once everything is back to normal. In a chat with Indraneel Das, he gives a peek into life after retirement and challenges to stay fit...
Tennis legend Leander Paes is one of those few mortals on this planet who finds joy in everything. Tennis is definitely an inseparable part of him, but the lockdown has given him ample time to reinvent himself, pursue his passion that couldn’t be done while on tours and focus on life after tennis. In a freewheeling interview, he reveals his future and recollects those moments that make him the Leander Paes. Wait he is not done with Olympics (that has been postponed to 2021), not as yet. Excerpts...
You have been associated with sports for over 30 years. Are you redefining the meaning of longevity?
I am blessed to have some great friendships in my career. With someone like Martina Hingis, Martina Navratilova, Roger Federer, Andre Agassi in my sport alone. In other sports, you look at Sachin Tendulkar, Bhaichung Bhutia, Vishi (Viswanathan) Anand to name a few, they have had very long careers. I have tried to learn from my peers and friends about that extra one per cent of diet, fitness, mental happiness, recovery and how to keep reinventing myself. I have been very blessed to have such a long career partly thanks to genetics from my parents but most importantly, the hard work that I have put in for over 30 years.
When you talk about reinventing yourself, do you mean motivating yourself all over again or setting new goals and targets?
All of the above. If you look at physical fitness. I remember my 33rd year, I felt I was quite exhausted at that time. I felt exhausted, thanks to the travel and the hours of training in the gym, on the tennis court; the long days that it takes to be a Grand Slam champion. I came back to my team. To my father and my fitness coach and my dietician and my mental trainer.
I reinvented my training system and then when I was 43, I had to reinvent again. Now one month shy of my 47th birthday, I have had to reinvent again with this lockdown period. So I think that it’s very important as a student of my craft or as a student of life to keep learning new things. I think that is one aspect of all the great champions in the world that I know. I have seen that they all reinvent themselves in all aspects of their lives.
Mentally, have you been very tough?
Yes, I think there are three different things. One is emotional fitness, two, physical fitness and three, there is tennis fitness — the technical side, strategy; especially during times like these, emotional fitness and physical fitness are important.
Can you put in perspective postponement of Olympics vis-a-vis your career? You had said this would be your last Olympics.
This was my last season and it started off brilliantly at the Australian Open. I got a grand farewell there. Pune (Open) was a nice run. Bangalore was nice. Dubai, I got a wonderful farewell, Bangalore too. But then after the Davis Cup in Croatia, everything came to a standstill. We were fairly lucky in Croatia.
After we finished on Sunday and travelled back to India, ten odd days later, there was a huge earthquake there. So we got fairly lucky. As soon as I came back from Croatia, I was supposed to go back to Palm Springs in Miami, and it was cancelled. Then the French Open got postponed, Wimbledon cancelled.
I think, at the moment, I am concentrating on reinventing myself with other businesses. It is very hard that all our careers, our jobs have come to a standstill, especially in sport. Even when the lockdown opens up because we are a global sport, we have to travel all over the world — 99 per cent of my work is outside India. I feel that in itself makes it very hard where even after the lockdown opens up.
I humbly feel that there is not going to be any tennis till January 2021. Hence I have got to reinvent myself this whole year. We are only sitting in May right now, we have got all of May, June, July, the whole summer, whole of American summer. We are probably going to miss all three Grand Slams, miss an Olympics this year. So with the Olympics postponed to 2021, I think post the lockdown or towards the end of the year, as things start opening up for tennis, we (my team and I) will only reevaluate then as to whether I should continue next year or not.
Is this the longest you’ve been away from the court?
I have been blessed with such a long career and have rewritten the history books multiple times over. I am blessed to have won so much in all the four Grand Slams. Australian Open I think I have won four times, French Open four times, Wimbledon five times and the US Open five times. In the Davis Cup, I have the world record. I have an Olympic medal.
The reason it was my one last roar this year was that I felt I had already achieved everything and there were few things to play for. To participate in three more Grand Slams to get to 100 is a lifetime of sweat and toil and hard work. So I think that when you look back at my career, it was blessed.
I will always be playing tennis. I will be playing tennis in some shape or form. Whether it is seniors or exhibition, whether it is world team tennis or league, whether it is playing for fun with my family. I will always have tennis in my day-to-day lifestyle. In terms of professional tennis, that is something we have to evaluate at the end of the year.
Away from tennis, are you pursuing any other professional career?
There is so much else to do. I can’t really speak about it right now but there is so much my team planned for the last three, four years. Right now in one context, this lockdown has given a realisation that I have to reinvent myself. So it’s very nice that I get to spend time with my family, get to enjoy quality time with them. I have never spent this much time at home in one long stretch as I have always been working for the last 20 years.
Forty weeks a year travelling and touring non-stop. So I am really taking advantage of this time, spending time with my family. That being said, in terms of other opportunities, businesses and other passions I have had, my team has been working for the last four-five years to put things together. I am spending time to get that done. Because all of these are large projects and they need time and require my personal attention. I am enjoying that.
Any particular lockdown moment you would love to remember? Cooking...
I love to cook. I enjoy different kinds of cuisine obviously. Travelling on the tour it becomes a necessity and also you don’t usually have a kitchen everywhere you go. So I specialise in pasta and salad. Breakfast is one of my favourite meals. I can eat breakfast morning, noon or night. And I love making different kinds of breakfast. When it comes to serious cooking, those are the things I am really passionate about.
When I finish with my tennis, I want to learn serious cooking. Take cooking classes. They have a Michelin chef cooking class. French patisserie is very interesting. The way they bake and make bread and pastries. There are so many fun things to do that in one context. I am really looking forward to that time as well. I always maximise whatever position I am in. I always make the best of it. No restaurant though. Cooking for my loved ones for sure.
How many hours do you train? Motivation an issue?
About three hours. Motivation is an issue. It is very difficult. It is something we all have to take stock of. Especially since we are not allowed to leave the house, we should ensure we get plenty of movement. Otherwise, we just sit down in one position on our phones, in front of the computer, or reading, watching Netflix and videos.
There is so much out there that it is distracting. It is really important to get movement. Even if it is walking in a living room. One room to the other. Freehand exercises, core exercises, yoga meditation or breathing, now is the time to do. All professional athletes are doing a lot of fitness exercises. Sustainability is important. You have to be mentally and emotionally fresh.
Even after lockdown, it will take a few weeks before professional sports are back. Plenty of time to sustain fitness levels but the fact is that we are not getting to play football, cricket, badminton or tennis now. Some tennis strokes might be a bit rusty. It might take a bit longer to fix that.
Which is your most cherished moment? Grand Slam wins, Davis Cup matches/records or the Olympic medal?
So many cherished moments! It’s hard to pick. If I had to pick my Davis Cup wins, there are so many. If I have to pick every one of my Davis Cup wins, those were very special because I got to play for the tiranga (tricolour). I played for 1.3 billion people. Every one of my Grand Slam victories, all of them with different partners are very special. Then if you look at beating Pete Sampras in singles in New Haven in 1998; beating Roger Federer in singles in Indian Wells in 2001; winning the Newport Hall of Fame in 1998 was special.
If I have to choose the most important one, that would be the Olympic bronze. That is really, really special. The first time they introduced the (Olympic) play-offs, it was quite a tough. Was to meet Sampras in the first round and most of my peers were saying draw was bad luck. But somehow, I felt Atlanta was magic. I worked my whole life for it. The day before the first match, Sampras had pulled out, they put Richey Reneberg (USA) in. So I beat him, then Nicholas Pereira in the second, then Thomas Enqvist and beat Renzo Furlan in quarters.
In the semis, I injured my wrist. Andre Agassi played a passing shot when he was down 5-6 and 15-40, I pushed the ball to his backhand and he hit it as hard as he could right at my face. I felt I had every shot covered except that one. When he did, my hand hurt so badly that I didn’t realise until later that I had a tear in my wrist tendon. That was a tough one. I had to come back two days later to play Fernando Meligeni, one of my friends from Brazil. To play him in the bronze play-off was tough because he was in good form. I was down a set to him and then I came back and won. After years of hard work and perseverance, I could emulate what my dad did, win an Olympic medal for India.
Parents’ role in sportsperson’s development?
Parents have a huge role to play. That emotional fitness starts with parents. It is also important to know that the coaches the parents choose are very crucial. When you choose the right team, you choose the right coach, right fitness trainer. It is important to let the coaches do their job.
The parents do not have to be the coach. They don’t have to be the fitness trainer or the physiotherapist. The parent needs to be the confidante. Parents can be the handling companion, support system. The unconditional love every parent gives is something every child needs. It’s a huge support. I am what I am is because of my parents. I am so blessed. I have an unbelievable support system and I’m lucky. Not only the genetics but all the skills they have taught.
On frying pan challenge and Mahesh Bhupathi
It’s all about hand-eye coordination. It’s not so difficult when you are a professional athlete. Mahesh Bhupathi and I have had some good banter. We stay in touch and it’s nice that we can communicate and bring some happiness to people especially in a time like this when it is needed.