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Leander Paes’ mantra: Simple living and constant reinvention

“I work my butt off trying to stay healthy and fit. It’s the part of tennis I still like. It’s not about winning big tournaments. I can and I have proved that enough,” says Leander Paes.

tennis Updated: Sep 27, 2015 00:41 IST
Sukhwant Basra
Sukhwant Basra
Hindustan Times
Leander Paes,Tennis,Mantra
There seems to be no slowing down for Leander Paes. At 42, he clinched three mixed doubles Grand Slams this season. (Virendra Singh Gosain/ HT Photo)

It’s largely believed that the monks of medieval France invented tennis when they started whacking a ball about with their palms. When the aristocracy got involved, one presumes their softer hands compelled the invention of the precursor to the modern racquet. But, centuries later, winners in tennis still have much in common with the monks. Their hands stay chafed, sandpapered by years of grip greased with sweat rubbing on skin that’s calloused beyond blisters. They may be kings now, but they still have peasant hands.

Leander Paes takes better care of his hands than most models. But after playing for the country for 25 years, those hands have seen a lot of abuse. The surprising bit now is that even at the age of 42, they still retain their magic.

Change is inevitable

It all started back in 1978. Father Vece had gone to Colombo to play inter-club sport and picked up a pair of football boots for Leander. That was the spur for his travel mate Jaidip Mukherjea to buy a Lobster racquet for the young boy. From the time Leander was pushing the ball around at South Club and Dalhousie Institute in Calcutta to now, tennis has morphed as a sport.

No, it not just the tight shorts that went out of the window (can’t say one misses those). It’s more than serve and volley no more kicking a lot of opponents. In fact, the whole game has become a far more pumped up, octane-charged and fiercer version.

Even the doubles game has far more baseline rallies. The balls are heavier, the racquets more bazooka-like and the synthetic surface makes for a perfect bounce that allows the uncoiling of killer groundstrokes.

At a time like this, the man who in the past was not unfairly referred to as ‘a volley and two feet’ should be sitting back at South Club, nursing a beer and ruminating on an illustrious and eventful career. Instead, when the writer catches him after practice during last weekend’s Davis Cup tie, Leander is bubbling over with enthusiasm about the increased gap in the strings of his new racquet. I ask him about the strings as I was shocked to see his backhand. It’s looking better than it ever has over the last two decades. Leander is pleased. He loves to discuss technical stuff if he figures you know a bit. He enjoys getting into the intricacies of his craft. He has changed his racquet as well as his coach — to Martin Damm from Rick Leach — as the modern doubles game needs better groundstrokes.

The reason Leander Paes stays relevant and keeps winning even at 42 has nothing to do with his oft-applauded great hands on the net or even his self-confessed great sports genes. All that helps but the crucial bit is constant reinvention. It’s about always looking for that extra 1%.

Martina Hingis of Switzerland and Leander Paes celebrate after defeating Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States and Sam Querrey of the United States in their final match of the 2015 US Open. (AFP Photo)

Modern monk

“I work my butt off trying to stay healthy and fit. It’s the part of tennis I still like. It’s not about winning big tournaments. I can and I have proved that enough times over the last 25 years. What is nice for me is to keep challenging my body, challenging my mind, to push boundaries. That’s the fun part.” How come nobody else manages it? “I found a formula very young — a simple lifestyle and constant reinvention.”

After all these years, is there more tennis to learn? “I am bringing more dimensions into the game. Leach was more of a serve and volley coach. But since the game is transforming into more of a baseline thing I need someone who understands the technicalities of that. You just got to evolve with it and stay ahead.”

But after so many years, isn’t it boring? “The travel gets monotonous, the airports, hotels — that gets monotonous. The press interviews and unnecessary attention — that’s necessity. Not reinvention, that’s fun”.

The formula

Leander has been going through a messy custody battle for his daughter with estranged partner Rhea Pillai. As if to prove that he has superhuman control over his mind, he went on to win three mixed doubles Grand Slam titles this year. “You feel the pain, the hurt, the loneliness. But you have to do what’s best for you. I am a pretty simple guy — I work hard at it. Sometimes, people don’t understand that simplicity is all you need.”

We are talking the day I have written a piece on him that he believes “violated the trust of a confidante”. He feels that strongly about negativity from people he believes are close to him. However, here we are doing an interview. He raises an eyebrow at my request. I tell him that the boss has been on my case. He smiles and without a blink agrees to talk. I ask him how he can flip these switches — to go from a guarded to open state in another blink.

“It’s human to feel emotions. It’s a human thing to have a need to do something. So rather than being judgemental about somebody, you understand. Every human being goes through peaks and valleys. When somebody is riding high, don’t get too sold out on the euphoria. When things are going bad, don’t get too low for it’s a temporary downfall. You have to stay on an even keel. I concentrate on not being judgemental. What’s in my control to do, I do. I don’t worry about what’s not in my control.”

Another brick in the wall

Leander says he has things planned out to be very clear about what his focus and priorities are. Here’s what you and I need to learn from him. “When I wake up in the morning I have already set goals for the day the night before. I have short-term and long-term goals. That means days and years charted out in my head. Every day is one brick in the building of a house. You make sure that one brick is firmly in place. Next day, you put another brick. That’s what you control, that’s what you got to focus on. Keep putting the bricks in place and before you know, you have an edifice with a very strong foundation.”

So is longevity a question of detail?

“100%. That one percent edge? 100%. Everybody has their own path, own journey. But when you look at longevity of excellence, not many people manage that. Not many even recognise it, not many understand it. Not many respect it for they don’t get it. It’s not important to bother explaining to others. It’s about letting your history do the talking.”

Keep at it

Leander is a firm believer that persistence pays. That there is no backing off and this in itself is the key to getting ahead. “It’s important to recognise that when you start out in a profession, there are probably a million in the world doing the same. The years pare this number down. Ten years later there will be a few thousand, 20 later there will be few hundred, 25 later? Not even the fingers on one hand if you are looking at people pursuing excellence at the pinnacle of their field.”

The journey won’t always be easy. “It gets lonelier and lonelier. It’s like climbing a mountain. At the base there will be a lot of people. As you get higher, the crowd thins out. From base camp to the summit is a very lonely journey and not many people get it. You just walk your walk.”

Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna in action during their doubles tennis match against Czech Republic's Adam Pavlasek and Radek Stepanek on the second day's play off of the Davis Cup between India and Czech Republic. (Virendra Singh Gosain/ HT Photo)

Age? What’s that?

Then, there is the constant refusal to accept that age isn’t just a number. “The ball does not question my age, it responds to what my racquet says. You feel it (age) but you spend that time looking after it (body). Who told Martina Navratilova that at the age of 49 she wasn’t going to win a Grand Slam? The tennis ball or history does not understand age; it understands spin and the effort that goes into making it do what you want. I write my own history, what I do today is for the record books tomorrow. I know that and I am conscious of it. I look to make it sing my tune.”

But there is basic biology. The body degrades with age. “You have to evolve with your body, you have to understand it. To understand how each muscle is transforming. Knowledge stays power. Use that knowledge to maintain yourself.”

“When unwell, pace yourself. You can learn from anyone. You just got be open and smart. Observant people own the world.”

Learn, learn well

As you see more in life the less judgemental you get. Is it a case of the more you learn the more you realise how little you know?

“Absolutely. 100%. The more you learn the more you realise that a reaction is a reaction that is just in the moment. That when someone does something good or bad, it’s just for that period of time.”

Then, what’s the bigger picture? “That’s the bigger picture,” he grins all pearly white, pleased to have got the better of a supposed wordsmith at word play.

So how does he switch from this carefree guy to maniacally obsessed on court? Is it a process or a button that he flips?

“There is a process for sure but you have to flip the button, that’s part of the process. If I can attempt an explanation — for the majority of it one can’t explain as it is largely instinctive — to flip the button I take a deep breath and centre myself. Breath is huge. As is calming the mind. One of my gurus is Bruce Lee. He talked about water. I want to be water. Rigidity can be broken, water can’t be. Water takes the shape of the vessel. Whether the gap is small or big, water will fill it up. So be water, just flow with it. Don’t be stagnant.”

He believes in routine and repetition. “You have to find a formula to replicate excellence. Once you have it, you realise you don’t have to keep searching. You just replicate. Every year you add on one more percentage — equipment, fitness, mental strength. Learn from everyone. Even the taxi driver who handles the night shift as you can’t sleep easy too. He told me something basic: “Main toh larta hi nahin. Neend aata toh so jata gaadi mein, nahin aata to chalata” (I don’t fight. I sleep when sleepy, or else I drive on). That’s a fundamental truth — You don’t fight life. You make it work for you.”

First Published: Sep 27, 2015 00:39 IST