NEW DELHI: Muhammad Ali has been an inspiration to millions and idolised by many more. His punches in the ring are legendary while his punches outside garnered him respect and adulation. When he passed away earlier this week, the world mourned.
Leander Paes was among those who mourned the demise, in Paris. The champion died the very day Paes and Martina Hingis completed their career mixed Grand Slam at the French Open and the 42-year-old tweeted his respect: “To the greatest of all time… Thanks for giving every kid a chance to dream… I believe cause of you… #RIPAli”
Not many get a chance to meet their idols. Fewer are lucky enough to be able to share a spe- cial moment with theirs. But for someone who dressed up like Ali as a five-year-old, who drew inspiration from his messages throughout his life, Paes was lucky to have gotten a chance to meet him when he won the Olympic bronze medal at Atlanta in 1996. “He was with his wife when I met him,” Paes recollected on Tuesday evening.
“He spoke softly but asked me, ‘You’re that kid who won the medal isn’t it?’ I said ‘Yes, Mr Ali that was me’. He then went on to tell me that my medal was the first for India after many, many years. I agreed with him. And then he said something which I took to heart and believe in. He told me ‘it’s your job to go out and motivate kids in your country to do their best’.”
For someone who would go around saying as a five-yearold, ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee because I’m Mr Lee’, meeting Ali was almost a dream come true.
“You know I’ve never spoken about it before,” Paes laughs.
The French Open mixed doubles trophy was beside him. He kept glancing at it. Many would think career Grand Slams in men’s and mixed doubles, 18 of them, and an Olympic bronze, would be enough.
But for someone obsessed with numbers and history, Paes is yet to reach a sense of accomplishment. “Yes, the career Slam is four but I’ve won twice, so eight. I love records; I love to rewrite history books. If I manage to get up every day for one month and don’t enjoy what I do, I’m done. I will call it a day,” Paes is firm.
But that day isn’t coming anytime soon. Not only does he need to win one more Slam in the mixed doubles to show his gratitude to Martina Navratilova, who he respects immensely, he definitely wants to add at least two more Majors to the existing 18.
He’s currently tied with the Czech-born legend at 10 in mixed doubles, a record in the Open Era.
FOR THE NATION
His love for the country is well known. His achievements on the court when playing the Davis Cup are stuff legends are made of.
His father, Dr Vece Paes’ No 5 hockey jersey from the 1972 Games has always inspired him. He stands firm that only the best team should go to Rio; one must avoid the London catastrophe at any cost.
“Rohan (Bopanna) and I are the best possible combination. We are playing at a very high level. My career speaks for itself and Rohan has also been doing well in the last 18 months. We both are ready and without a shadow of doubt; me and Rohan are the best team,” Paes believes.
The selection committee meeting is set for June 11. No matter what happens, Paes is sure about one thing. He will keep going. Rio is definitely not the end.