“She was Leander’s backbone during his initial years,” father Vece Paes acknowledges, sitting in his plush office at the Wankhede Stadium. “Leander shifted base from Kolkata to BAT at age 12, and it helped him focus wholly on tennis. The residential academy had the top 12 juniors in the country. Tennis greats like John Newcombe and Rod Laver came to train the boys… It was very inspirational.” Maggie’s tireless efforts helped develop her sons into world-class players. And it was with the same zeal that she worked on Paes’ all-round development.
Today, the 39-year-old is gearing up for a record sixth Olympics. Since his debut at Barcelona in 1992 as a 19-year-old, Paes has shown no signs of slowing down.
Ask former national coach T Chandrasekaran. It was under his and American Dave O’Meara’s guidance that Paes grew as a player in Chennai. “What set him apart from the others was his constant desire to give more than 100% even during practice. Never would he fool around. In fact, he would come up to me and say he couldn’t practice with the boys who were not giving their best. This is the reason why Leander is where he is now,” Chandra, as he’s fondly called, states. “In 1987, I took him to Chandigarh for the sub-junior nationals. After making the main draw through the qualifying rounds, he ran into the top seed in the first round. Leander came up to me and said ‘sir, I’ll get him.’ Not only did he send him packing 6-2, 6-1, Leander ending up winning the title.”
Once the 16-year-old won the junior Wimbledon three years later and rose to No. 1 in the rankings, his association with BAT came to a bitter end. Before leaving, Paes even broke the glass cabinet and took with him his junior Slam trophy. “He wanted to leave,” says Maggie simply, pointing to the 22-year-old black and white photograph where she is proudly smiling after Leander’s triumph. It was the Amritrajs who gave Paes his first communion at St Theresa’s Church during his BAT days.
The sudden shift from a family environment to the deep end of professional tennis at age 16 was a matter of survival for Paes. “The initial hurdles were tough and that’s why Leander’s growth was delayed by two years. Firstly, we were only allowed $750 in foreign exchange. Though we had Rs. 30 lakh in sponsorship, we were unable to convert the amount and get good foreign coaches,” recollects the older Paes, sipping hot coffee on a rainy afternoon in Mumbai. “Secondly, Leander’s forte was the net game. But with the singles game undergoing a change, it was Tony Roche’s analysis in the winter of 1994 which got him to shift gears.”
Roche predicted that Paes had the ability to become a top doubles player after his singles outings were not going to plan. His quick reflexes and court speed were the building blocks of his doubles game. Deciding to partner Mahesh Bhupathi in 1996, the ‘Indian Express’ hit a jackpot in 1999 when they became No. 1 in the world.
“Everyone was against him partnering Mahesh but Leander stuck to his decision. He even came to me and said ‘we're gonna be a damn good team’,” former Davis Cup coach Akhtar Ali recalls. In fact, Ali’s younger brother Anwar was Paes’ first coach in Kolkata.
Tennis is a lonely sport and the Paes family took time to understand what their son was going through. “The first clue was in 1991. Playing at Wolfsburg to gain points, Leander called and cried over the phone. I simply told him to toughen up,” Vece says. “In hindsight, we should have sent someone from the family with him during those isolated lower ranked events.
“Secondly, after junior Wimbledon, Leander got sucked into an avalanche of playing the circuit. Once he took his class 10 examinations, we decided to pull him out of school. Maybe we should have let him complete his studies…
“Today, he is surrounded by his family. He constantly giggles with Julie (Vece’s second wife) while he comes to me for the ‘serious talk’. Partner Rhea and daughter Aiyana give him major emotional support. He’s content,” Vece says softly.
Hailing from a sporting family, the 13-time Slam champion didn’t have to look far to nurture an Olympic dream. He equalled his father’s 1972 hockey medal when he brought home the bronze from Atlanta in 1996. “There's no question of a race. His medal is superior because he won an individual event,” Vece points out. But, then, why does his son keep saying he wants a second one to win the race? “It’s probably because I keep beating him at carrom!”
Goals and records drive the 39-year-old. “When he played Barcelona with Ramesh Krishnan, we gave him a target of four Olympics. Then came the fifth and today he’ll be playing his sixth. Don’t set goals everyone says. But, if you don’t set goals, how can you make records?”
The recent I-won’t-play-with-Leander fiasco is still fresh. Vece quickly brings out photocopies to prove the statistics. “Leander was focussed on becoming the No. 1 player so he could have a choice in partners. You know, questions have arisen that is something wrong with Lee? That’s never been the case. The only way to deal with such questions is to do well on the circuit.”
So, after four failed Olympic medal attempts with Bhupathi, and Rohan Bopanna refusing to partner Paes, the All India Tennis Association has sent Vishnu Vardhan’s name as his London partner.
At an age when most of his counterparts have turned to commentating or other sporting ventures, Paes completed his career Grand Slam by winning the Australian Open in January. “Leander has always been driven by records. From the beginning it’s his inherent speed and competitiveness which has driven him. But today after two decades on the circuit, his joints have taken a pounding. To continue till 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, he needs a new training regime to sustain himself,” Vece points out.
Though the heavy weight training has been set aside, core stability is a must. He always needs to be at his peak because tennis is unforgiving, with rankings changing every week. After London, he would need to shift from hard surface training to ensure those quick legs are still flexible.
Motivation has never been a problem for this go-getter. “Frankly, Leander is always associated with Mahesh. To break this connection, Leander needs to play beyond and if his body agrees till Rio, why not a seventh?” asks Vece.
Chandra fully believes his former ward has the potential. “As a doubles player, Leander can last in competitive tennis well into his 40s. It’s his energy, work attitude and discipline which have taken him so far. And the immense self belief from his teen years is the reason where he stands now.”
“I never thought I’d meet a crazier tennis player than your son,” Andre Agassi told Vece after beating Leander in the Atlanta semifinals. The former world No. 1 American even went on to write in his autobiography, Open: “He’s (Paes) a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he's never learned to hit a tennis ball… After an hour, you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly - and yet he’s beating you soundly.”
Two decades of professional tennis, 13 Grand Slams and a record-sixth Olympics — most would be happy with even a quarter of these achievements. Not Leander. From hitting a ball against the wall as a five-year-old in Kolkata to wowing crowds all over the world, this maverick still has a long way to go before his final act.