Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
Leander Paes has won 18 Grand Slam doubles titles and played in 34 Grand Slam finals
Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
In the closing fortnight of 2023, Leander Paes is in Mumbai for a day straddling a series of interviews with the Indian media. His calendar has already been blocked for the new year, with interactions lined up with the international contingent. Sandwiched between the two is the holiday season of Christmas and New Year, which Paes plans to spend in his hometown of Kolkata. "Yes, Christmas and New Year's in Kolkata for sure," he says.
For the Paes family, though, Christmas would have come home early, in mid-December, when Leander, an 18-time Grand Slam winner and the former World No. 1 doubles player, was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF), along with former Indian player and broadcaster Vijay Amritraj and British journalist and historian Richard Evans. While both Amritraj and Evans have been chosen in the Contributor category, Paes is the first Indian and the first Asian male player to have made it to the prestigious cohort that, so far, has had only 262 inductees representing 27 nations (former Chinese singles player Li Na being the other Asian).
The call that informed Paes of his nomination to the elite club three months ago came from Katrina Adams, the chairperson of the ITHF Enshrinee Nominating Committee and an erstwhile mixed doubles partner for the Indian. “It was in the middle of the night, and I was so excited that I woke my parents up,” he says grinning. A rigorous election later, in which a nominee must receive at least 75 percent of the votes, Paes became the only player among the six shortlisted to be inducted into the ITHF. “It makes me very proud,” says Paes, “that a boy who played gully cricket and gully football in Kolkata, has now made it to the Hall of Fame.” Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q. In a career where you've had so many achievements, what does this honour mean to you? It's the most humbling and gratifying honour to be inducted into the hallowed corridors of the ITHF. Because it speaks of four decades of passion, hard work, sacrifice, and a culmination of so many things coming together. The ITHF is the epitome of awards that one could achieve in my field of tennis. It speaks of the 18 Grand Slam wins, 34 Grand Slam finals, a world record in Davis Cup doubles wins, 7 consecutive Olympic appearances and an Olympic bronze medal. But it also speaks of the human equity that one has gained over the years. I've had about 192 partners—a lot of those partners won their first Grand Slam with me—Radek Stepanek, Lukas Dlouhy, Martin Damm to name a few, a lot of them are legends in their own right—like Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis. So creating history with them in 22 countries over three decades is a blessing, because now when I go back to do work, to inspire the youth and the young children to play sport, it becomes a lot easier because people already know what ‘Flying Man’ Leander Paes is all about.
I’ve won the Hall of Fame Singles championship in 1998, and also won the doubles in 1999. So my tennis racquets, shirts, shoes are already in the Hall of Fame. This honour brings life full circle. One has achieved many accolades and in India I'm very humbled to have received the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. But now to achieve this on the international stage makes me very proud.
Q. What are some of the most abiding memories of your three-decade-long career? My god, where do I start. Most careers are 10 years and 15 years long, but to have one that’s 32 years long, spanning 192 partners, 22 countries…
You know, each Grand Slam holds special memories. Winning the junior Wimbledon in 1990 was one of the most wonderful memories. Even winning the doubles and the mixed doubles in 1999, two Wimbledon titles in the same year, does not match winning the boys singles in 1990 because that gave me the mental belief that I could be a tennis player.
Then, winning my first senior Grand Slam at the French Open in 1999 was one of my favourite French Open wins, completing the men’s doubles career Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 2012 with Radek Stepanek was very special. Also winning the junior singles at the US Open in 1991.
Now that I’ve been inducted into the ITHF, all these stats are coming up, I never concentrated on them when I was playing. But now I'm told that I'm the only man, along with Rod Laver, to win Wimbledon in three different decades. Same with the French Open—I won my first in 1999 and the last, also the last grand Slam that I won, in 2016. Between 16 months in 2015 and 2016, Martina Hingis and myself won all the four mixed doubles Grand Slam titles. All these things make it very tough to choose which one out of these Grand Slam finals that I’ve played is special. Q. You've played professional, competitive tennis till you were in your mid-40s, and you won a Grand Slam when you were 43. What does it take to stay on top of a sport at a time most of your contemporaries retired? A tremendous ability to reinvent yourself. It takes a lot of passion and hard work and motivation to keep bettering your own performance, because there was no one ahead to set those benchmarks. Where does this motivation come from? From the passion to rewrite the history books, the passion to prove that we Indians can be world-beaters. The world record that we have in Davis Cup, or the performance in Olympics, and now the induction in the ITHF—these things motivate me a lot to be different from the pack, to be unique.
In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Novak Djokovic busted the myth about his mental resilience. He said it's not something he’s had as a gift, but it’s something he has built over years, conquering doubts that he’s had, like everyone else. As someone who's been there done that, how do you build that mental resilience?
Having achieved this large body of work, I understand exactly what Novak is saying. Whether it was close to a hundred doctors who told my father when I was a young boy that I would never be able to be a pro athlete, because I have a mitral valve prolapse in my heart, whether it was in 2003 ending up in the cancer hospital at MD Anderson, I feel no matter what anyone else said, I knew what race I was running. I knew that I wanted to rewrite the history books. I never got deterred or distracted by the noise around me, I just focussed on the task at hand. And I think the simplicity of that focus allowed me to achieve these goals.
Today, sitting here as an inductee of the ITHF, it’s easy to talk about stories, but while I was in there, hitchhiking rides through Europe when I was 19-20 years old was so dangerous. I have a big scar on my chest from being mugged in New York City—I had to get 23 stitches and then got back to practice. I slept in locker rooms because I didn't have money for hotel rooms back in the day. Those are tough things. And I'm glad that I can inspire generations of kids around the world through my story—that if I can be a champion, so can they.
Martina Hingis (right) and Paes have paired up to win four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles in 16 months
Image: Action Images / Tony O'Brien Livepic Q. You've played with legends like Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis. How have they inspired your career? Martina Navratilova’s knowledge about diet and sleep and recovery helped me tremendously to prolong my career. She was very specific about her practice times—she would not practice for 2/3/4 hours because she already had the muscle memory. She would come in and practice for 40 minutes—and those would be really intense 40 minutes—and move on.
Hingis inspired me so much that we won all four Grand Slam titles in 16 months. It’s insane to complete a career Grand Slam in 16 months. She loved playing points, so in practice you were always playing match situations. So, when we got on the court playing the match, it became a lot easier because we had already done it so many times.
Q. You’ve seen the world of tennis through four decades. How do you think the sport has evolved? The equipment has changed. The playing surfaces have gone through different speeds. Right now, it's very slow. The tennis ball has changed a lot. It used to be much smaller and faster through the air, but now with the amount of felt and the pressure, they've made it a lot slower so winners can’t happen as much.
But if you look at the physical attributes of the athletes, it's grown tremendously. You also look at their mental attributes—Djokovic, [Carlos]Alcaraz, [Iga] Swiatek—these are just phenomenal players. The physical and mental fitness of tennis has grown so much that it makes it the hardest sport in the world.
Nick Kyrgios recently stirred the pot by saying that the stars of yesteryears, like Boris Becker, wouldn't be able match up to the standards of the modern generation.
It's very hard to compare different eras. Some played with wooden racquets, some with graphite ones, some have played all four Grand Slams on grass, while now only one Grand Slam is on grass. So many things have changed over the years that it's very hard to compare generations.
Q. Who’s your pick for the best among The Big Three—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic? I started playing when [Bjorn] Borg and [John] McEnroe were still playing, and no one ever thought that Borg’s five Wimbledon record could be beaten. Until Federer came around and he won eight Wimbledons, and 20 Grand Slams. And then Nadal bettered Federer's Grand Slam record, by winning 22, and winning 14 titles at the French Open alone. And then out comes Djokovic, this Serbian boy who is a great athlete with a phenomenal mind—for me, by far the greatest of all time. Why? Because the history books show that. He has won 24 Grand Slams and counting… it doesn’t look like he’s stopping. This is insane.
Q. You co-won the Bengal Wizards franchise of the Tennis Premier League (TPL). What can competitions like the TPL do to the tennis ecosystem in India? The TPL creates opportunities for youngsters to come and rub shoulders with the greats of the game, and see how winning is done. It's a big bonus to the players who are young, aspiring Grand Slam champions to play with the international level to see where the challenges are. I was really happy that the TPL came back with such a flourish post-Covid, which many other leagues couldn’t. Season 5 that concluded recently was the best season of all the years, and I'm really hoping that in 2024 we can possibly take it to an international location.
Q. To a young kid who wants to be the next Leander Paes, your words of advice? If I can, you can.