A tireless champ with lightning reflexes, a trailblazer feared for her forehand and a rookie poised to hit the big league – Leander Paes, Sania Mirza and Sumit Nagal made this year’s Wimbledon memorable for us. We bring you their stories.
Half Past Forever…
... And yet far from over. Even after 25 years on the court, 16 Grand Slams and 100 partners, Leander Paes is still going strong. How does he do it?
by Satarupa Paul
“Take the first step, focus on the summit and go for it.”
Easier said than done? Last month, Leander Paes added another feather to his already embellished cap when he won the Wimbledon Mixed Doubles title with Martina Hingis, taking his Grand Slam tally to a sweet 16. But for the 42-year-old tennis star, it really has been about walking the talk.
“Success is measured by achievements and by longevity. You set targets for yourself when you’re developing,” he says. “It is a long and arduous journey to the top but that is the way to go. I’m reminded of the ‘Rule of Ten’ for achieving excellence in life and in sports: it takes 10 years, 10,000 hours and 20,000 deliberate, perfect repetitions to achieve a skill. There is no automaticity to body movement. It has to be deliberate and perfect each and every time.”
Winning smile: Paes-Hingis won the 2015 Wimbledon mixed doubles final in two straight sets (Photo: Getty Images)
For Paes, the journey has indeed been a long one – almost 25 years and counting. While we’re at numbers, let us tot up a few more: in June this year, he became the 47th player in tennis history to reach a century of partners, and the first ever to do so and win over 50 titles and 700 matches.
He is counted amongst the greatest tennis players of all time, and not without good reason. His agility and net presence are world-class, his reflexes sharp, and his level of fitness still as great. “I’ve been blessed with a preponderance of fast twitch fibres in my muscles and that is what gives me my speed,” he says humbly. “At nine years and 12 years of age – the windows for developing speed – I did a lot of drills and exercises such as swimming and cycling to further develop my speed and reflexes. I believe it is my ambition, motivation and a drive to achieve excellence that keeps me going beyond 42 – lessons that I learnt from Martina Navratilova.”
The legendary Martina Navratilova had partnered with Paes in Mixed Doubles for four years (2002-05) and the duo had won two Grand Slams. In a Press Trust of India report following his Wimbledon win last month, Navratilova attributed Paes’ persistence and consistency in the court to his passion for the game and that he’s “always trying hard. That in itself wins a lot of matches. Without that you cannot win.”
Paes, for his part, still looks up to Navratilova as his guru. “At the sign in for the Mixed Doubles at the 2003 Australian Open, she commanded that she wanted me as her partner. The offer was a massive compliment. We won the Australian Open and Wimbledon that year,” he recalls fondly. Navratilova was 47 years old then. “She taught me that age is just a number. Hard work and honesty makes all the difference at all times.”
He is prompt to extend his praise and admiration to the junior Martina as well, with whom he won the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year, and expects to partner till 2016 at least. “Martina (Hingis) is an all-time great player. She is a happy person on and off the courts. In spite of her iconic fame, she is willing to adapt to her partner’s game. When Martina partners me, she plays a solid base line game which allows me to play to my strengths at the net. When she partners Sania (Mirza), she plays at the net forcing the opponents to feed Sania’s big weapon – her forehand.” Perhaps, it was this gameplay that won Mirza her first Grand Slam at Wimbledon this year, cementing India’s achievements at Doubles games further.
But why haven’t we been able to replicate the same spectacular success in Singles competitions? Paes believes this is for a mix of reasons, “Tennis is a physical game played at intense speed over a prolonged time. The Indian mindset and training systems are not able to cope with that. Besides, there is a lack of infrastructure, top level international coaches and support team. The best coaches cost USD 1000 per day plus 10 per cent of prize money if you reach the semifinals of a tour event.”
For now, Paes is aiming to repeat his winning performance with Hingis at the US Open and has set his goals for the 2016 ATP Tour, Davis Cup and Rio Olympics. Post Rio however, he plans to take a call on investing his time between tennis and his eight-year-old daughter Aiyana. “It is a joy to be with her and watch her develop in life, studies and sports. She used to play tennis but now her attention is on soccer, Taekwondo and roller skating,” he says.
Paes may be going through a difficult time in his personal life, with his impending separation from his live-in relationship with Rhea Pillai, but he says that it is a necessary situation. “On court, I’ve learnt to switch off and get into the focused rituals I’ve been practising for years. Tennis is my bread and butter, and the better I do in tennis, the more I can offer Aiyana. Having said that, I’ll take a call on tennis as I go along. After all, Rio is still a year away.”
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In the champ's corner
How Sania Mirza overcame injury, controversy, cynics and critics to finally fulfill her childhood dream this year: winning the Wimbledon title
She’s won four Grand Slam titles. But Sania Mirza always had just one abiding dream: to win at Wimbledon. And now she’s done it. Together with her partner Martina Hingis, Mirza lifted the 2015 Wimbledon women’s doubles championship trophy.
Naturally, she’s ecstatic. “When we won the last point, everything in the last 22 years of my life flashed past,” she says, her eyes glowing. “All the sacrifices that my parents had made for me, the pain, the criticism, everything. It was an amazing feeling.”
Going green: Mirza became the first Indian woman to have won at Wimbledon.
Mirza has been playing serious tennis since she was six. Her trainer was her father, Imran Mirza. Debuting on the International Tennis Federation circuit at the age of 15, Mirza was soon ranked by the Women’s Tennis Association as India’s No.1 player, both in singles and doubles, from 2003 to 2013 when she retired from singles.
In her singles career, Mirza has defeated people like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonareva, Hingis, Dinara Safina and Victoria Azarenka. She is also the highest-ranked female player ever from India, peaking at world No. 27 in singles in mid-2007.
However, a series of injuries forced Mirza to give up her singles career and focus on the doubles event where she is now ranked World No.1.
For those of us who are not tennis aficionados, it’s a bit puzzling to note that most Indian tennis players seem to do better on the doubles circuit than the singles. There are reasons for that, Mirza explains.
“Compared to doubles, which is more about skills, playing singles is much more demanding for a player,” she says. “Moreover, we do lack good infrastructure and our system is also to be blamed. I also feel that the problem lies in the fact that we don’t start training early. We need to start when we are six to seven years old, not when we are 15-16. That’s why a good singles tennis player from India is like a flash in the pan. There was Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan, then after 30 years, me.”
Mirza is hoping to take care of that problem through her tennis academy for young children. At present, however, she is clear she won’t resume her singles career.
“When you keep getting injured, it becomes difficult to return for the simple reason that as you grow older, you have to work harder on your body,” she says. “Thankfully, my last injury was in 2011, but even then my body has not been recovering the way I want it to. So I have had to change my game and my diet.”
Mirza and Hingis didn’t have it easy in the match that finally won Mirza her coveted Wimbledon title. The pair lost the first set in the final. But then they pulled themselves together and took the title. “When you are playing a match, you are not concerned about whether you are going to win or lose,” explains Mirza. “You just try to play your best. We were trying to keep fighting and keep our heads focused.”
Mirza’s inspirations are Roger Federer and Sachin Tendulkar – and Martina Hingis also in a way. “We are partners and Hingis has been my coach too,” says Mirza. “She is an amazing player and we gel very well. When we stepped on the court, she told me to enjoy the moment because we were playing the final of a Grand Slam.”
Back in Hyderabad after the win, Mirza’s family had a double celebration since Eid was round the corner. “This time it was extra special as my family’s hard work, patience and sacrifices have borne fruit,” says Mirza. “I spent the Eid morning with my family in Hyderabad, then flew to Mumbai to meet a friend and finally flew to Colombo to be with Shoaib [Malik, Pakistani cricket player and Mirza’s husband].”
Far from resting on her laurels, Mirza is already preparing for the US Open. She even missed the Champions’ Ball at Wimbledon, flying straight to Hyderabad to be with her family – and to train.
But that doesn’t mean she’s no fun. “I do enjoy being active on social media because I like to connect with my fans personally,” she says. “And I am a Bollywood fan and love Hindi film music. In fact, if I were to star in a movie, I’d like Akshay Kumar as my co-star.”
Meanwhile, she’s busy with her tennis, thank you. And at the rate she’s going, we could perhaps hope to see her collection of trophies and titles rival her collection of diamonds and shoes (300 pairs and counting).
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Here's looking at you, kid!
Sumit Nagal is making headlines after his victory at the 2015 Wimbledon boys’ doubles final. The 17-year-old champion from Delhi’s suburbs bares his heart
I hear him chuckle dismissively at my slow Wi-Fi and the static noises in our Skype call. It’s around 8pm in Germany and Sumit Nagal has just returned home from a day of training and a charity tennis event. “Slow Wi-Fi is so annoying,” he laughs, when we can finally hear each other clearly. “Slow Wi-Fi and fake people – I can’t stand dishonesty and lies.”
For a 17-year-old, he sounds mature and sure of himself. “It’s all thanks to tennis,” the 2015 Wimbledon boys’ doubles champion says. “It has made me a smarter and better person. If I weren’t playing tennis, I wouldn’t have learnt this much about myself, about life and about how the world works. Living and travelling alone, and doing everything myself has taught me a lot.”
Photo finish: Sumit Nagal lifts the Wimbledon boys’ doubles trophy for a photo-op at the Champions Ball.
Nagal was born in Jhajjar in Haryana to a father who retired from the Army to become a primary school teacher, and a mother who is a homemaker. Soon after, his family moved to Nangloi at the outskirts of Delhi. “Some of the people in Nangloi weren’t the best of company, but then again, you can find such people anywhere. Wherever you go, there’ll be people trying to pull you down. You just need to learn to recognise who they are and stay away from them,” Nagal says with his characteristic wisdom.
Growing up, he was quite the little troublemaker himself, picking fights with neighbourhood boys and playing pranks on his parents and older sister. “But I was also the kid who was always playing some sport or the other. I was never into studies,” he says. “Cricket was my favourite. I used to play galli cricket with my friends. And oh, how I used to love flying kites!”
It was at his father Suresh Nagal’s insistence that he first started playing tennis. “In India, most parents push their kids towards playing cricket,” Nagal senior tells me later over the phone. “But I always thought that kids should try other sports. Who knows, they might even build a career around that and earn accolades for the country.” So he urged his son to play an individual sport, “where it is all about you, not about other people”.
“One day when I was about eight, my father took me to the local sports complex to try my hand at tennis and I have never looked back,” Nagal says.
Since then, he trained under tennis champion Mahesh Bhupathi in Bangalore and subsequently spent five years in Canada training with coach Bobby Mahal. “Mahesh has been managing me for seven years. He has played a big role in my career,” Nagal says of his mentor and personal manager. “He has helped me on court, off court, wherever possible. And that matters a lot, you know, especially since I don’t have a tennis family background. Mahesh is like family to me now.”
Nagal moved to Germany last year and has been training at the Schüettler-Waske Tennis University at Offenbach under coach Mariano Delfino of Argentina.
“That’s one of the best things about tennis – other than the sport itself,” Nagal says of the chances he gets to travel to different countries to train and play. “I get to see different cultures and environments and meet different people. All these experiences have made me pretty street smart.” Barcelona and Miami are his favourite destinations, and he’s a big fan of Mumbai too.
Besides travelling, Nagal likes to watch movies – “Bollywood, Hollywood, sab chalta hai” – and play video games. “I also love bikes and cars,” he says.
His Instagram profile has a photo of him revving up a Ducati that his father recently gifted him. “But I haven’t had many chances to ride it. It’s just sitting at home in India, and because it’s such a heavy powerful bike, I don’t think even my father would try to ride it,” he says. “I plan to buy a Harley or a Hyosung next. But as of now, I give all my prize money to my parents. I’m a nice guy, I don’t waste money, you see,” he laughs.
So does Mr Nice Guy have a special person in his life, I ask him, even as he bursts out laughing again and says, “I knew this was coming! But I’m single. And that’s how I would like to keep it on the tennis court as well!”
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From HT Brunch, August 2
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