It's easy to get Leander Paes going in a press conference. The veteran of over 23 years on the tennis tour can still be easily wound up the moment the questions focus on the next rung of Indian tennis.
The 40-year-old feels that despite his years he is still one of the fittest players from his country. "Look at some of the younger players from abroad – they are big and strong. While the number of Indian players has grown (there are a record 55 on the rankings chart) most of them lack in physical and mental strength," said Paes who is still chugging along largely on account of the hard work he put in his formative years and clever juggling of his schedule to allow his body more time to recover.
"The gap between Somdev (Devvaman, ranked 90) and the next (Yuki Bhambri at 195) is just too vast. Somdev works hard but the others still have a long way to go," he said touching a chord that is bound to find a resounding echo with keen observers of the sport in this country.
Apart from that hard take Paes hit his oft practised stride of praising his doubles partner – he'll take to court with his 96th partner this week (that figure is the one Paes suggests) – Fablo Fognini and talking about what all he is looking to do to keep his interest level up in a sport that is extremely grueling on the body.
"Hardcourts take a lot out of the legs. The constant impact of landing on a synthetic court puts unbelievable stress on the joints. Only regular fitness and good personal attention allow me to keep playing at the highest level," he told HT after the press meet.
Men behind the man
While Paes owes the bulwark of his strength to his father, Dr. Vece, his consistency also stems from the immense attention paid to his rehab after workouts by his personal masseur and Man Friday Sanjay Singh. Now Sanjay is a guy who hates to be in the press, one suspects Paes doesn't like him talking about his 'secret' routines, but he has been an omnipresent fixture on the veteran's side for close to 15 years. "Sanj (as Paes calls him) is one of the pillars of my team. He knows my body and its niggles so well that I can't even begin to outline his contribution."
Along with the fact that Paes' gym travels with him — he is heavy on resistance bands and tools that enhance balance — the player also has some aids that give him the edge.
Special insoles (each costs in the vicinity of $450) to buttress his impacted heels, magnetic gizmos to aid recovery and a maniacal focus on constant hydration and nutrition are the little nuggets that buttress the mettle of this athlete. "At the highest level, the little bits add up. It's a constant job; demands a lot of attention in the beginning but then it becomes routine," says Paes.
Change of stance
Despite the focus, the load may well be building up and he is likely to cut down his schedule further to keep his body in shape for his oft-repeated goal of becoming the only Indian to represent the country in seven Olympics.
On the query of giving the next rung an opportunity to earn the necessary experience of playing for India by stepping aside, Paes was not his usual belligerent self. Instead of his oft-repeated stance of 'they have to earn their place', Paes chose to be ambiguous. "That has been going through my mind. I'll have to take a call on that." Watch this space for more.