He is 41, has won 14 Grand Slam titles, but still has the hunger for more: This is the evergreen Leander Paes for you.
The Indian tennis legend is one of those players whose name is synonymous with the country’s progress in the global sports arena in the last three decades. So it won’t be wrong to say that what Sachin Tendulkar has been for Indian cricket, Paes is for Indian tennis. Now, the question is that even after devoting 25 years to the sport and winning numerous titles for the country, what keeps Paes going?
“My mantra has always been to be the best you can be every day. In all these years, I have always wanted to get at a very high level, to be at the top of my game in the world scene. To be at the top of my game, continue winning medals, I have to push my mind and body. And for that I have to eat right, do my gym work and training regularly,” said Paes while talking to HT, after he led his franchise Punjab Marshalls to a 29-18 victory over Delhi Dreams in the Champions Tennis League match at the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association stadium on last Friday.
As far as Chandigarh is concerned, Paes has a special place for City Beautiful in his heart.
“I have a long history with the city, and it has been one of my favourite places to play. I have won many big and career changing matches here: I won my first ITF Junior tournament here in 1989, and from there I went on to be junior world No 1. Then in 1990, I played my first Davis Cup tie here and won the doubles match against Japan. My first CTL match with Punjab Marshalls was again in Chandigarh. Coming back here brings back a lot of fond memories.”
From an upcoming player to a veteran and mentor, Paes role has undergone a big change in these two decades. How he does feel about it?
“When I started playing, there were very few Indian players in the international circuit. Now, there are so many talented players in the country, such as Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, Purav Raja, Divij Sharan, Sanam Singh, Saketh Myeneni, who are playing internationally and going places. Now, there are so many good players around, but to pick out from the good ones, and make them great is important and that’s where I can make a difference. I interact with these players and share a very good relationship.
Though I have to face them in matches on daily basis, and they are trying to take my place in the team. But in that competitiveness, there is lot of friendship.”
Paes’ consecutive Olympic appearances from 1992 to 2012 make him the first Indian and first & only tennis player to compete at six Olympic Games. And though the next Olympics in Rio is more than an year away, the veteran has already set his eyes it.
“I am definitely getting ready for Rio. It would be my seventh Olympic event, a record for tennis and sports in the country. And hopefully, I will again get a great chance to win another medal for the country,” said the Rajiv Khel Ratna award recipient, who won men’s singles bronze in 1996 Atlanta Olympics, besides having multiple medals from different editions of Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.
Paes’ thoughts then moved to CTL: “The concept and format of CTL is great, especially when you consider the kind of mix every team has – there are international, national and junior players. For young players attached to every franchise, to be in the company of such great players, such as Martina Hingis, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Venus Williams, and to see them play is a golden opportunity in terms of learning the nuances of the game.”