It’s surreal. We’re sitting in the business lounge of a 5-star hotel at 2 a.m., and to the accompaniment of the genteel tinkle of cutlery being laid out for the breakfast buffet by well-trained staff, talking about happiness.
Let me rephrase that. It’s surreal to me. This environment. Leander Paes, on the other hand, is at home, at ease, radiating charm and good cheer.
We’d been juggling schedules for a few days, before discovering, with some relief, that we’re both owls. And so, after a day that started with dropping his daughter off at school at a lark-like 7.30 a.m., and a choc-a -block calendar that ended with a formal dinner, he glides into the coffee shop where we’ve been waiting. It’s nigh-on 1 a.m., but he’s fresh, glowing, relaxed, and looking like he could go five sets right here, right now.
While Dinesh and I finish our coffee, he gets one sent out to his driver, who, he points out, has had an even longer day. And then we move on down the road, to his favourite haunt, where they all know his name. He greets the scattered staff you see in 5-star night-times, asks how they are. And then, finally, we sink into deep couches, and he turns the full focus of his attention back to us.
We talk about his Olympian parents, both of whom played for India, his dad in a medal-winning hockey team, his mum in basketball.
“I’ve had the most amazing relationship with my parents. My dad is my best friend. I learnt later that he’d decided that his first son was going to be a super-athlete. When I was in my crib he had me doing crunches! He actually had on top of me different coloured balls so I could differentiate between left brain and right brain—he already had a scientific methodology about guiding me into this path. One of his greatest gifts was that he was always on the pulse of when to let up, give me breathing space and when to push hard because I could take more.
“Football is, was and will always be my first love. My lifelong dream has been to walk out of an underground locker-room into a World Cup final, confetti everywhere, and a hundred-thousand people chanting, Lionheart! When I was 12, I got a scholarship to PSV Eindhoven. They asked me to give up my Indian passport; I said no, I’m Indian through and through.
“When I gave up my soccer dream, my dad said, now what are you going to do? I said, tennis? And he chuckled. He said you don’t even know how to play tennis properly! I said, find me the best tennis academy and in a year I’ll tell you whether I can do this or not. He took me down to Chennai [to the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy], stayed with me for two days, settled me into my room.
“And he wrote me a 100-page letter saying how mum and he were moving on their own paths and how they continue to care for each other and love us kids more than anything in the world. ‘But now, son, you’re a young man and you need to stand on your own two feet and this is your path.’ I read some of the letter while he was there and never once questioned him because I had tremendous belief in my family. And then I embarked upon becoming a man and tennis was my vehicle. I was 12.
“I have amazing parents who have belief in my talents, who have taught me as a young boy how to be a student of life. And then I’ve had amazing coaches and teachers who’ve taught me to be a student of athleticism, of tennis. Now I’m a student of parenting; my daughter teaches me. To me, the journey of Leander has always been of a man who continues to learn.”
And the pressures of the pro circuit for over 20 years, of stardom?
“It’s a lonely life. I think the baggage of celebrity is very tough, very hard. But, I’m very aware of what I do to people when I’m in a room, on the phone, talking one-on-one. I’m very aware, when I’m in a stadium, of the frenzy fans can have. But to me, myself? I’ve never been a star. I’ve just been Leander, that same student. The celebrity is there — not the person: I’m talking about the emotions other people feel — you can see it, use it as a potent vehicle to move people and motivate them.
“Ever since I was a boy I’ve had people say, no, you can’t: ‘You have a mitral valve problem; no you can’t.’ ‘You’re too short; you can’t.’ ‘You don’t possess a backhand; you can’t.’ ‘You don’t have money to travel; no.’ ‘Indians? World-beaters? Not gonna happen.’ The one thing they never ever made the mistake of telling me was that I don’t have the killer instinct or passion to be what I want to be.”
How has the Leander that played for India always seemed to find it in him to play way above his ranking? “People take the time out to celebrate what I do. The energy I get is from the people who follow me. And when I play for the country, my subconscious responsibility to them always kicks in over and beyond myself.”
And the shift to being a doubles specialist? “I always was a singles player in my mind. My junior career speaks of that; my Davis Cup record, my Olympic medal. In ’98, I’d had my best year: I’d just won the Newport Hall of Fame, I’d just beaten Sampras at Newhaven, I’d got to my highest singles ranking, 73, and I was number two in the world in doubles. And I had to make a decision: Singles or doubles? I felt that if I continued with my singles, I’d comfortably break top 50. But whether I’d break top 20 or top 10 or number one in the world… that was a tall ask. Whereas in doubles, I wanted to prove, to myself, to another Indian who I picked up straight out of college, Mahesh [Bhupathi], to kids on every street corner in India, that we could be world-beaters. I always got ‘no.’ But I’m a rebel. I’m disciplined enough to know when to blend, to play by the rules. There’s a method to the madness. Like jazz: Know the rules, and then you can make an educated, rebellious move.” We talk music, and shared interests in tap-dance, and soft-shoe back into tennis. “I asked tonnes of stalwarts here, what do you think of this decision? Of Mahesh as a partner? If I asked a hundred people, I got a hundred Nos. And whenever someone asks, what makes you think you can live your dream, I go silent, and I use that energy to live my dream.
“Can you imagine, at 37 and 38 years old, this year in March, we got back to number one in the world? Ten years after we were number one!” With tennis longevity, Martina Navratilova enters the conversation. “The world knows her as a legend; I celebrate her as one of the best friends I ever had. She’s just gone through a tough ride, and I tried to be the best friend I could be for her. But I certainly know she was there for me when I went through a tough time.” He talks with warmth about the friendship and the transparently joyous tennis partnership, and after a while, I steer us back to Bhupathi.
“My journey with Mahesh has been quite an amazing one. We’ve achieved things no one ever thought we could. The reason was our amazing respect for each other, our amazing ability to move each other to do things beyond ourselves. Looking back, I don’t think we thought of: Okay, once we get to number one, then what?
“We had such an entourage — not big in numbers, but big in talk, big in influence. We, both, now, take responsibility for what happened back then. We were two young boys who conquered the world but then were not quite ready for it.
“One of the great things in my life has been to get that friendship again, celebrate it again. It was always there, but for nine years we didn’t celebrate it; we had respect for each other, for what we’d done on the tennis court together as well as individuals, but the so-called rivalry overshadowed the celebration of that friendship.”
And then, in 2003, a “sucker punch. I was told by a radiologist that I had a tumour in my head that was cancerous. For six weeks they didn’t know what it was. In 30 days I did 31 MRIs, about 28 CT scans, blood tests, X-rays… And I’ve got to thank the medical team I had — my dad, Dr. Razak, the neurosurgeon, Dr. Singhal — who saved my life. Every day I live now, I feel that I owe it to them. I remember the first conversation I had with Dr. Razak. He said, ‘If you do this surgery everyone is telling you to do, I guarantee you’ll never play tennis again, you’ll have a 20 percent chance of walking. If you ask me to do the surgery, I’m bound by law to do it. But my strong advice is take the time to get to the bottom of this.’ I’ve got to thank that man for the physical attributes I have today. Dad took the reports over to Dr. Singhal, who looked at them for about 10 minutes and said ‘You don’t have cancer. This is a tropical disease that they don’t know about in America.’ Six weeks later, I was on my way to recovery.”
There have been other tough times. “The first hour my dad gave me that letter to read. Sleeping in a locker room all night. The first hour Hesh and I had differences. It’s always been that first hour; it’s a little confusing; just understanding what cards you’ve been dealt. It’s the interpretation of the obstacle, understanding it, then finding a solution. An instrument plays better when it is weathered. God knows, my soul, body and heart have been weathered quite a bit.”
If one wanted to be cynical, one could say that he’s a little too pat, says too much of what you want to hear. Not surprising: He’s been handling public attention for so long. On another day, you could say that the 12-year-old who had to grow up so fast is still there, seeking approval. Or you could conclude that he is a well brought-up lad with all the right values, a gentleman to the bone; because he’s easy to like, you want to believe that interpretation most. And the rush of words when he’s talking about his family, especially his daughter, is transparently sincere.
“My relationship with Rhea is one that started in 2004. I was, and still am, attracted to her spirituality, her dignity and her complete feminineness. We’ve got a beautiful young girl, Aiyana. My father gave me the opportunity to be whatever I wanted to be; I want to give her the full platform for whatever she wants to do. It’s amazing how much happiness and joy and family belonging Aiyana has given me as a man. I left home at such a young age, I travel the whole world like a gypsy. But my home is in Aiyana’s heart. It’s a great journey being a parent. I love it completely through and through. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
“I love my daughter, I love Rhea, I love my tennis, I love my parents, I love my friends, I love the dreams that I’m embarking on and I celebrate them daily. I think it’s important to understand our own, individualistic interpretation of love and to celebrate that. Not everything has to have a reason. Sometimes, it is what it is and you celebrate it for that.
“I miss my family a lot and I make no bones about it. Tennis is a hard, lonely life. When I was younger, I barely earned enough money to sustain myself. I didn’t have the luxuries that modern athletes had or what I have now. I know myself very well [he chuckles] and make no bones about crying, falling on the ground and getting bruised as I meander through my own life. I know that I will dust myself up, dry my tears and look forward to the next celebration I’ve got. And that peace of mind, that journey of life — I mean at 38 to have that peace is a real blessing.”
What happens now, I ask him. You’re 38; you’ve already played far longer than anybody has any right to. He laughs. I persist: Let’s say you’re as durable as Martina and that you could be playing top-flight tennis until you’re 49. What then? “I’ll figure it out then, no need to know now.”
Now, there’s a graphic novel in progress (a photo-story, starring him), a movie out next year, and one more that will start shooting in a few months. That’s the entertainer in him, the creative streak. His great-great-great-grandfather was the Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt: “I love his poetry. I used to write poetry for people that I love and I write songs, and stuff like that. The advantage of having a lot of spare time with yourself is that you get to explore different talents, you get to learn how to make an ass of yourself and then find a way to make it look half-decent [laughs]… and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to be an actor and theatre was always something that attracted me.
“I’m just blessed to have some wonderful people behind me and giving me a chance to be the multi-faceted person I’ve always believed I am. Ten years ago, I don’t think the opportunities would be as many.
“I think that, I’d rather live my way, by my own rules and standards, because it allows me to lay my head on the pillow at night peacefully. I know that whether I’ve won or lost, whether I’ve done right or wrong, I’ve done the best that I can. And I’m fine with that.
“So far, it’s gone pretty good. [A self-deprecating laugh] I’ve done not so bad for myself.”
Check out the ForbesLife India blog at forbesindia.com for audio extracts from the conversation.