The four Grand Slam trophies sit there proudly, on polished wood in a posh hotel as Leander Paes goes through another round of interviews.
“It’s taken 20 years to get there,” says Paes. “Can you imagine?”
Not really. And it is unlikely that anyone, let alone in the room, but even the country can imagine the sweat behind or the worth of those four modest silver cups: the last of which was earned when Paes became the first Indian to complete a career Grand Slam in men’s doubles by winning the Australian Open.
“It is an incredible achievement for Leander,” says Mark Knowles, 40, four-time Grand Slam champion and someone who has stood on the opposite side of the net from Paes countless times. “Especially since he has done it at 38.”
It’s not just the physical age Knowles is hinting at, but also the mental tenacity it takes to stay on track to turn that dream into reality. A rare tennis icon in a cricket-obsessed nation, he is also a man of rare persistence.
Dr. Vece Paes, Leander’s father, and a member of the Indian hockey team that won bronze at the 1972 Munich Games, takes a jog down memory lane to where it all began.
“Chiradip Mukerjea (former Davis Cup player) had bought a tennis racquet for Leander. I took him to the Dalhousie club in Calcutta, handed him the racquet and told him to hit against the wall, one ball at a time, because that helps to build technique. I told him to do that for half an hour after which I was supposed to go and pick him. But I got late, and came back after two hours, and saw this five-year-old still hitting against the wall, one ball at a time.”
The sportsman in Dr Paes spotted a determined kid. The sportsman in Leander never let that kid go.
When he had to give up his first love, football, since he suffered from convulsions as a child and had to be taken out of all contact sports, he found a passion for tennis. When his game was deemed inadequate for singles, by star coach Tony Roche, he made the painful switch to doubles post 1998. Looking for solutions, pushing through, these obstacles were turned into milestones. Even at 38, he is relentless in his pursuit.
When the lights at the Rod Laver arena went off while Paes and his partner Radek Stepanek were practicing at this year’s Australian Open, the duo practiced reflex volleys in the dark. In their first major championship together, they beat the tournament’s top three seeds and dropped just one set enroute the title.
“It’s all started sinking in now,” he says. “Completing the career Slam could be one of my best achievements.”
Core of success
“How are people in India reacting to Leander’s success,” an excited Dave O’Meara, Paes’ former coach from the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy asks over the phone from America.
“When he first came to BAT as a 12-year-old, a lot of people put questions marks over his game,” O’Meara recalls. “I tried to teach him to overcome those limitations, but more importantly, I saw in him things you can never teach someone. One of it was his quick hands and feet. He was a very confident kid, and not afraid of the big stage.” 13 Grand Slam titles are a testimony to that.
Sure, he was born with a high-percentage of fast twitch fibres, which have helped him to base his game on speed, and an unshakable belief. He had Olympic dreams stoked right at home, his father’s bronze guiding the internal compass of all his sporting ambitions.
But the more you delve into the Leander Paes story, the more you realise it is a product of meticulous design than a wild ride on natural talent.
As soon as he turned 18 and was thrown into the deep end of professional tennis, Paes had a physical trainer, Dave Herman, and sports psychologist, Dr Jim Loehr, on board. His core team, which also includes trainer Sanjay Singh, has been firmly behind him for the past 21 years. Goals were set, and they chased it down in a pack. “A lot of people talk about my mental toughness,” says Paes. “But it’s come over a long time.”
Loehr identified the emotional trends that were hampering his performance on court: impatience, which in turn led to inconsistency, and hyper-excitement.
“It involved lot of calming rituals, breathing techniques. The whole exercise revolves around identifying the key points in a match and then taking command over them. Also you’ll see almost all good players have a photographic memory, it helps you to anticipate how your partner, or the opponent, is going to react.”
Winning regularly, as Paes has over the past two decades, lifts the spirit. But it does very little for the legs and joints that muscles that continue to take a pounding every day. He does not have to lift weights often anymore, but there is resistance band training to be done. Endurance drills are substituted with sprint and agility drills. Core stability is still a must. So are clean living and staying away from the dessert trays.
Does the mind or body ever sag from the tiring routines? “No,” then comes the shrug. “Motivation has never been a problem for me. I just need to be convinced of the reason why I am doing it.”
His trainer Herman, based in Orlando, sketches out the fitness blueprint every six months for Paes to follow. “He still moves like a cat,” says Herman. “Right now our focus is on keeping his body pain free. He has to do a lot more recovery work, flexibility training.”
So much to to keep him standing on the tennis court, but aren’t those quick hands supposed to slow down with age?
“Leander still has the best reflex volley in the game,” says O’Meara. “Sure, studies show that you will lose acceleration with age. But that begins to happen really late. Leander is not there yet. If he wants to, he can play tennis well into his 40’s.”
New lease of life
The doubles players have also been given an extension lease by the new scoring system. In 2006, the match tie-break, which substitutes the third set, and the no-advantage rule was introduced to speed up the game and make it more spectator friendly. The Grand Slam matches, including Wimbledon, were slashed to three sets, thereby considerably reducing the workload on the players.
“The new doubles rules took some time getting used to but they have definitely been a blessing,” says Paes."You still need certain amount of fitness to be a doubles player," adds Knowles. "The fitter you are physically, the sharper you are mentally. And that’s important in the new scoring system. You have to be there to make the kill when the opportunity comes. It has taken away a lot of strain because you know you only have to perform in short bursts, for a limited amount of time." Though the pressures on the men’s tour have eased somewhat, the majors, with the added element of the mixed doubles (especially if you go deep into the tournament, as Paes found out at the Australian Open) can be tricky.
“The summer is going to be very physical,” he says, going over the schedule: French Open, Wimbledon and the London Olympics all within ten weeks. “Also, the grass at Wimbledon will be chewed up, there will be lot of bad bounces, which means we have to be more alert.”
Soon the preparation for his six Olympics will begin. He’s not the enthusiastic 19-year-old, whose first taste of the Summer Games came in Barcelona 1992, looking to make a mark on the Indian sports landscape. He’s the enthusiastic 38-year-old, looking to deepen that mark he’s made.
“Ever since he started playing, we always gave him targets,” says Dr. Paes. Leander agrees, he sets targets for himself every week, every quarter, every year. He has to; he’s part of a sport that is the strongest of meritocracies, and where the pecking order changes every Monday. “I don’t stop till I’ve got there,” he says. But the lure of an expensive watch doesn’t cut it nowadays. “He has reached a stage where he believes, ‘history will judge me’,” adds Dr Paes. Come July, Paes will be chasing history again. He’ll be shooting for a second medal, to add to that bronze medal he won in Atlanta 1996.
“People tell me the doubles medal is not that important since I already have one in singles,” he says, underlining that as his best effort so far. “But I don’t buy that. I’d like two medals. Finally I’ll be able to beat dad!”