Having travelled the world as a professional tennis player for more than two decades, the ideal birthday for Leander Paes would be spending it at home with his daughter Aiyana, who clearly holds his heart. But there are no such luxuries for Paes, even as he turns 40 on Monday.
On the eve of his birthday, Paes will be back on the road, this time flying off to the UK to compete in yet another tournament: the Eastbourne 250 ATP event, which serves as a tune up to Wimbledon.
Paes doesn’t feel the age; wearing a trendy denims-and-black-shirt ensemble and the boyish grin and still fit he certainly doesn’t look the age. But a jog back to the memories at Wimbledon, which he first played in 1989 and took the juniors’ singles title in 1990, gives a sense of just how far he has travelled.
“It has been a long journey, no?” he considers. For a generation of Indian fans born post the 1980, Paes, like that mountain on the horizon, has been a constant on the sporting landscape.
“I left home when I was 12. Won Wimbledon in 1990, played my first Davis Cup match in 1990. Now that I think of it, I do really feel old! But there have been so many amazing memories along the way, and the memories are still so vivid; that’s what has kept me going.”
Switch in time
And rather than slowing down, Paes is still exploring avenues to outfox his opponents.
Like a child talking about his new toy, he excitedly chats about switching racquets from Babolat to Head.
“It’s not a bigger (racquet) head, but it is supposed to create more speed through the air,” he explains. “I am trying to get more kick into the serve and developing a top-spin backhand, something that I never had. As long as you are playing, you have to keep re-inventing yourself.”
He is feeling more comfortable with the racquet and is even more relieved about being back with his regular partner Radek Stepanek at Eastbourne; the Czech having recovered from a neck surgery in January. “It’s time to salvage the season,” he says.
Change of racquets, and change of partners (three) this year has led to a barren six months: no titles and only six wins on the tour.
Paes knows exactly what the damage is, where he, and for that matter each one of his strongest rivals, stands in the doubles pecking order currently. Having spent a lifetime looking up those rankings charts every Monday, isn’t he tired of keeping tab? “It’s my job to do it,” comes the reply. “It has been a rough year on and off the court. It is showing in my game.”
Paes learnt long ago that once on the tennis court, there is no place to hide.
He had neither the height nor the game to tower over his singles rivals, and yet he bravely went into battle with the best of them.
“With the kind of game I had, I quickly understood that I had to be fast, and I had to be smart to win. Tennis is the most difficult sport to break into, let alone for a kid from India,” he recalls.
The crowning glory came in 1996, when he won a bronze at the Atlanta Olympics.
He even beat Pete Sampras on the hard courts at New Haven in 1998, when the American great was still regularly winning Grand Slams, and recorded stunning wins over Henri Leconte and Goran Ivanisevic in the Davis Cup.
“My singles achievements are what I am most proud of, by far,” says Paes, despite having won 13 Grand Slams in the doubles arena. He reads the game better than most and his longevity and sustained success are a testimony to a career built on hard work.
“Leander comes out and struts his stuff, but he has the right to because he’s the magic man,” Mike Bryan, one half of the most successful doubles team, said of the Indian last year. “He’s in your face, close to net, snapping off balls with his head high.”
High on life
So careful is he of not losing that athletic edge that he diligently keeps away from chocolate treats and has never consumed alcohol. During the course of the interview, his daughter keeps seeking his attention so that she can go and play in that brightly lit room in the hotel. “That’s the bar, you can’t go there,” he sweetly tells her. “Children are not allowed in there.”
After Aiyana has drifted off with her friends to seek new attractions on the floor, Paes turns back and says, “The longer I keep her away from the bar, the better!” He recalls stories of drunk 16-year-olds in toyshops in his now hometown Mumbai to the, sometimes inescapable, drinking culture abroad.
“I wasn’t ever attracted to it,” he says. “And in my profession, I don’t think I can afford to (drink).”
While tennis rewards that kind of discipline, it is also one of the professions where it is easy to lose your head. Not only because players are thrown into a global and competitive whirlwind at a very tender age, but also because it regularly clinks glasses with the rich and the glamorous.
Paes left home as a teenager, and over the years has been to enough parties, and tournaments, where champagne flows. But Diet Coke remains his choice of beverage. Whether he is so inclined or not, Paes would make a compelling advert for healthy living.
Still setting targets
Whenever one has spoken with Paes before, there has always been a defiance in his voice when asked if he felt any closer to calling it a day. The bravado slightly cracks this time.
“Playing in Rio (2016 Olympics) is something I would love to do and something that I am working towards,” he says. “But three years is still a long time. I don’t know what’s going to happen six months, or even three months, down the road.
“The target right for this year is to get my ranking back in the top-10, hopefully qualify for the season-ending Masters and see how we are placed for the next season.”
With that Paes is not promising the moon, but it is encouraging to know he still finds enthusiasm to focus on the more definitive steps to success.
While we can take some time off and dwell on his achievements as he reaches a milestone on Monday, Paes will be out on the court, representing his country and honouring his craft. For a life measured in titles, not years, turning 40 is a mere passage of time. And there will not be cakes or alcohol to celebrate it.