At the age of 41, most tennis players watch grand slam finals with their feet put up and a beer in hand. Leander Paes continues to play them. With a tennis arsenal that he himself describes as average, it's his feet that stay his greatest asset.
The way his game is shaped, Leander does not just win matches. He has got to, by compulsion, run away with them. Chasing darting tennis balls at 41 means legs that have been nurtured, trained and sustained over 23 years of competitive tennis. That, for me, is the greatness of Leander. He is not the most talented tennis player out there but he has had the discipline and sheer strength of will to stick to a training programme that allows him to bank on the fluidity of his movement. Even at 41.
And that beer? Many a time we have had elaborate chats on what different beers taste like and just how single malt whiskies have a distinctive character. Leander is amazingly curious about things he doesn't know much about. It's actually a bit incongruous that I elaborate on these nuances to a world traveller but in over a decade that I have known him, and have drained many a mini bar in his hotel room, Leander has not once sipped alcohol.
Physiologically there isn't too much wrong with an occasional drink for a sportsman, but Leander comes from the old school of monk-like adherence to a code of discipline. Light up in a room with Leander in it and you'll find him rushing to the nearest window. You may be in the middle of your long-promised interview but Leander will launch into his workout routine if the time for that has come around. At all times he will be eating and drinking water or a sports concoction. Pre-hydrating for matches has spilled over such into his life that I have seldom seen Leander without some form of fluid to ingest. His two indulgences are an occasional cola with lemon and masala chai. And he is usually guilty about that cola.
Leander is not just feline on court; he's quite cat-like even in his interactions. You can keep trying to get through to him but once he's in a tournament, Leander is lost to the world. Weeks later he will call back - once the tennis is settled - and he will chat for hours. It didn't take me long to realise that Leander is actually not interested in overall press coverage. He connects more on a human level. He sulks like a spoilt kid if he feels you have wronged him by calling him unfit. He will emotionally berate you into submission with his 'bro' talk. But Leander is the one sportsman I know who actually does not care for the press. He, fittingly enough, believes his achievements have put him beyond what any journalist can say to aid or harm him.
Leander's code has gone through many personal tribulations and the pressures that "life in a fish bowl" imposes on celebrities. But he has an incredible ability to put his life on hold during a big tournament. His brain seems to freeze the emotional turmoil and tuck it into some corner when the bigger business of winning matches comes around. It's an amazing feat of mental strength and it's an asset that's just as important in shaping the legend of Leander. Then, there is this burning desire to learn. Leander is like an inquisitive ferret about any information on a new type of training. His tennis bag is always full of new gizmos to keep workouts interesting; to keep going through that daily drudgery so important to perform at the pinnacle of world sport.
Regardless of what happens in the Australian mixed final, Leander stays a beacon of hope for Indians who want to learn just how to take on the world and continue to beat it for two decades in a global sport. There just seems to be no full stop to this legend, it continues to grow.