Playing on for the flag

Leander Paes's never-say-die attitude keeps him going even at 39. He lasted the distance at this year’s mixed doubles event at the Wimbledon and earlier this year, won the doubles event at the Australian Open to complete a career Grand Slam. With the Olympics just over a fortnight away, India will hope that he carries the good form to the Games. Getty Images

Leander Paes lives on a different plane. It's difficult for normal guys like you and me to relate to the frightening obsessiveness this man has for his sport. Leander is an extremely emotional man who either shuns you or forges bonds for life. Extremely upset with your correspondent for his reporting on the tennis feud (this writer had basically slammed all the players), Leander was not in a conciliatory mood. He certainly did not want to give a lengthy interview. But then, this correspondent knows that if you have ever done Leander a good turn, he won't shut you out for too long. Especially not when you are standing in his face and refusing to go away.

The interview starts hesitantly:

What do the Olympics mean to you?
Leander's expression leaves no doubt in my head that I had erred in the opening remarks.

He takes off: "You know what, I hate that I have to answer these kind of queries. Hasn't it always been about playing for my flag, my country and my support group which has stood with me over the last 26 years? It's about the all of India who through the rough times has always motivated me to play for them.

"Am I feeling like I have been disrespected? YES.  Do I feel like its (the men's doubles selections) not on merit? YES. Is it hard? YES. But then, we are professionals I have to put all the negatives aside and play for the cause I have been playing all my life and that's playing for the flag and the millions of Indians who have supported me."

He's glaring and breathing hard. I quickly try to change tack and get into the driving seat.

Playing the media has never been your strength. Why did you get into it (in reference to his communications with the federation being sent out)?
(Sighs) I never ever really got into it. Basically, I was steered in different directions for different reasons by different people. (It was leaked) For effect, which had no effect. I still think there is a reason why there is a selection committee. I still stand by their selection but unfortunately being world No.1 for nearly five months this very year is not good enough. Unfortunately, getting to Grand Slam finals is not enough to earn your respect (he glares again at your correspondent).

You know what's the good part about it? That's what I always go to. It sifts all the nonsense. It makes it very clear why I am doing this. It makes it very clear what I live for and makes it very clear what motivates

Has all the nonsense motivated you even further?
Yes, it has.

I am so motivated to shut everybody up and work at it for four more years and play my seventh Olympics.

You sure?
100%. I will work towards that now.

You are looking much leaner, fitter. You come into this even stronger. Consciously?
You sure you are saying that (referring to this writer's comments that he is not as fit as he used to be). (Laughs). I was 112 pounds heavier than ideal weight at one time (when he was on bed rest after an operation) so it does not bother me what people like you say about my weight - fit or fat or whatever. Weight's not a big thing. It's about movement. It's the kinetic movement and that's what you are seeing that's sharper. Deuce court, ad court doesn't really bother me. At this level, you have to play great tennis. You are playing the best in the world. You are not playing South Club (Kolkata) Championships (laughs). The margins between winning and losing can be one point. End of the day, you have to play great tennis and that's what I am going to focus on.

It's been a pretty turbulent, confusing time. Are you really the kind of guy people don't want to pair up with?
When two people say that, you don't want to take into account the rest of the world? I have had 92 partners over 26 years of professional tennis. And that if two (Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna) of them are unhappy but 90 are really happy, it speaks for itself.

I think that when you have two rogues out there, they need to be disciplined but they were not (by the federation) and that's the disappointing part. For me, my journey is far longer and far greater than two individuals. It speaks for itself. The fact that I am here playing my sixth and am motivated to play my seventh Olympics, speaks for itself. It speaks of how committed I am for achieving excellence. We live in a world where quality IS appreciated. But not this time and that's been the hardest thing to deal with in the last two months.

You mean you were not appreciated for what you have achieved?
Well, the Olympics is about merit, it's about the best team to win a medal. Yeah, we are celebrating the biggest-ever tennis contingent. In 10 days what are you guys going to ask us? How many medals do we have? That's what I have been saying - we got to win medals. And having won a medal already (singles bronze, Atlanta '96) I know the difference between sending teams to participate and sending teams to win - it's huge. I don't want to get into all the hoo-haah all over again ...

But these guys didn't want to play with you...
Doesn't matter. I really don't want to deal with it. It's fine.

In the mixed doubles with Sania (Mirza) you are taking the backhand, not your strength.
I have won here with the backhand before. With Lisa Raymond. Barely two weeks ago, I was in the final here (mixed doubles) and literally two games away from winning. I feel very comfortable here. You are playing at a world-class level here and the margin between winning and losing is a few shots. It does not matter which side of the court you play. For me, I am comfortable with either.

I started off my career from the backhand side and did really well. In mixed doubles it is more important for the woman to be comfortable about what side she wants to play from especially since Sania has got a good return of serve. The more returns she gets into play, the better off we are for the other team's under pressure then.

How's the fire inside?
Awesome. Amazing.

Is it really stoked?
I have always found reasons to motivate myself. A lot of people take credit for it at different times, my father, my trainer ... whatever the reasons are, I have always found a way to lift my game. While one is not as talented technique-wise in tennis, the talent one has is in the mind and the heart. That's what I know best and I keep going back to it.

You sure you will be able to keep going till the next Olympics?
Realistically, who knows? But right now that's what I feel like. I feel like going for it.
By now your correspondent knows that it's time to get away from Leander Paes. The man has got more and more agitated as the interaction continued. When an athlete one calls a friend throws a heartfelt: "I expected more from you. You let me down," there's not much that a journalist can say. Except mumble, "I was being objective," and scuttle off. The derisive snort from the athlete does not leave one feeling too good about one's job. But then, that's the way it is.


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