What drives a player whose autobiography’s last line could end with ‘done it all’? A player so respected in his field by players and fans alike, he has won a number of trophies and medals over 25 years on the circuit and still plays out of passion for the sport. His contemporaries have turned to coaching, business or commentating, but Leander Paes is preparing for his seventh Olympics in Rio this year.
At 42, he’s as agile and sharp as he was two decades ago. To stay in shape, he keeps changing fitness routines and leads a clean lifestyle.
“No one goes out there and works 7-8 hours a day for fun. No one travels away from home 30 weeks a year for fun. No one spends half a million dollars on expenses for fun. I’m one of the original competitors in the world who fights like hell. That’s my USP,” says Paes.
“But I have fun doing it. It’s become so much of muscle memory, a lifestyle, just the way I’ve become with tennis. I fight for everything I’ve got. Often I don’t think I’m the most talented tennis player on the planet but one of the best competitors. So, going to the Olympics is a huge deal for me. I live to play for the country.”
He laughs, “I don’t have anything to prove to anyone, anymore. Nobody.”
Paes wants to go down in the history books as the first Indian and tennis player to play in a seventh Olympics. With 17 Grand Slams, an Olympic singles bronze (Atlanta, 1996), the world No 1 doubles ranking and many other records and medals on his resume, he surprised everyone recently by playing two Challengers, second-rung tournaments in the ATP hierarchy.
“It’s a unique experience now, stepping back to play a few smaller tournaments and work my way up. A lot of people wonder why I’m playing smaller tournaments, but I love the competitiveness. Whether I’m preparing for a Grand Slam final, Olympics or a $75000+H Challenge in Mexico, my preparation stays the same,” he adds.
“The seventh Olympics is a huge dream for me, especially after London (2012) when I felt a chance was taken away from me and India to covet a medal. I don’t want it to happen again. That said, I just want to be given an opportunity to covet a medal,” Paes says, not going into the politics of partners and drama in the selection process.
Making himself comfortable in a plush sofa at a city hotel, Paes seems to be at peace. Last year, his father, Dr Vece Paes, had suddenly asked: “You’ve done it all, haven’t you?”
Paes junior grins. “It was dad’s way of saying play for fun now.”
The 2014 season was his worst, personally and professionally. He forgot about it, and came back strongly, pairing with Swiss Miss Martina Hingis for the first time and winning three mixed doubles Grand Slams.
“My rankings drop (he’s now 56 in the world) makes me play those (smaller events). I still believe I can win Slams. You know, a stage comes in life when there isn’t a huge difference whether I win Slam number 18, 19, 20 or 21. I already have a singles medal in the Olympics. For me, the goals are (about) unique things left to do – rewriting history books.”
Before one can ask, Paes clarifies: “Yes, I’m playing for fun, but I play to win.”