It is perhaps incidental that Leander Paes notices, while munching on his breakfast, that the colour of my shirt matches the orange stripes on my sneakers. Or that he remembers me from two years ago when I was watching him play a doubles match at Wimbledon. “Red glasses, seated on my left with a thick notebook, right?” he asks. Lucky guess, surely. But when the 17-time Grand Slam champion runs me through his historic 1995 Davis Cup match against Goran Ivanisevic (who later went on to win Wimbledon in 2001), I begin to believe all the special things he claims his mind can do. Behind that easygoing demeanour, the country’s most inspiring sports icon hides a mind that’s sharper than his outstretched Becker-esque volleys.
Back in 1995, at 22, Paes was already a veteran of several high-profile Davis Cup battles, having beaten the likes of Frenchman Henri Leconte and South African Wayne Ferreira, all ranked way above him on the ATP Tour. But Ivanisevic, the gangly Croat, reached Delhi with a CV that boasted two Wimbledon finals—one in 1992, when he was beaten by Andre Agassi, and the other in 1994, when World No 1 Pete Sampras stopped his juggernaut. “I knew I couldn’t match him in a quick match or on technique and service power. The only way to beat him was physical and mental stamina. I knew I had to keep the man on court for four hours. If it was a five-setter, that set would be mine. And that mind game had to be won,” says Paes.
That plan looked faulty when the match began. By the time he could figure out Ivanisevic’s monster service, he was down two sets and 0-3 in the third set. But then, exactly as Paes had anticipated, it all came unstuck for Ivanisevic. In a little over five hours, he succumbed to the grit and stamina of the Indian.
His casual tone would suggest that getting into one’s head is perhaps the easiest thing to do. But try messing around with Paes’s and you’ll see how the man who brought the country an individual Olympic medal after 44 years guards it like Fort Knox. Consider 2015 for evidence. All through the year, Paes fought a bitter custody battle with estranged live-in partner Rhea Pillai over daughter Aiyana. Pillai accused him of domestic violence and their bedroom secrets became fodder for media gossip. The Mumbai sessions court recently sent the case back to the magistrate’s court in Bandra over the maintainability of the plea. Which means Paes may have to spend much of 2016, the year he plays his seventh Olympics, in a legal tussle.
But 2015 is also the year in which he won three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles with Martina Hingis. That takes his mixed doubles tally up to nine, making him the second-most successful player in the category next only to Martina Navratilova, and as rare a player as Australian great Ken Rosewall to win Grand Slams in three different decades.
How does he manage to put mind over matter? It’s a lesson he claims to have partly learnt from one of his mixed doubles partners, Navratilova. It’s instructive, he says, how the tennis legend shuts out all negativity around her and sifts her priorities. That apart, it’s his focus, he says, that’s been hardwired in him since childhood. “Those four lines of the tennis court make up my zone of creativity. I am a different person there, totally focussed. Here I am talking to you and preparing for a shoot. Once I am done and I head to the court, my mind will only be on the game. I try and stay focussed in the moment with everything I do,” says Paes.
Easier said than done for most of us. Not for Paes. That’s why at 42, when most of his contemporaries have hung up their rackets, Paes has become the oldest male player in the Open era to win a Grand Slam title. Exactly 20 years after he won India its first Olympic medal in lawn tennis, he continues to be one of the country’s biggest medal hopes in the 2016 Rio Games.
It doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t have too many years of professional tennis left in him. That’s what the critics had said even ten years ago. Maybe that’s why when he catches my diffidence in using the word “ageing”, he goads me, almost mischievously, “C’mon, say it. Don’t be shy.”
Paes certainly isn’t. Neither are his colleagues on the tour. Because when it comes to his game, age has been incidental.
Ask Martina Hingis, the former World No 1 who made her second comeback to professional tennis a little over a year ago. Paes and Hingis have been playing for Washington Kastles in the World Team Tennis league in the US. But the Swiss was always hesitant when Paes asked her to join him on the tour. “It was not because I had any doubts about him. I never had. It was me who I thought wasn’t good enough, as I hadn’t played professional tennis for 5-6 years. But Leander had 15 Grand Slams [then]. It was evident that he was playing well. I was a little scared to disappoint him,” says Hingis, who agreed to team up with Paes last year only when she thought her game was ready.
Paes has become synonymous with such high benchmarks due to his continuing efforts to sharpen his game and reinvent his skills on the go. His first Davis Cup coach Naresh Kumar was astonished to see him play a new backhand at an exhibition match in Kolkata some weeks ago. “He told me he had picked it up recently from [Stanislas] Wawrinka, who has one of the best backhands in the game. Imagine his readiness to learn even at this stage,” says Kumar.
Paes insists that the penchant for learning came naturally to him because he neither had the flair nor the technique to be a world-class tennis player. “In the 80s, when the training systems were not at its best, I had to be creative and work doubly hard to achieve my goals.” At the Britannia-Amritraj Tennis Academy (BAT) in Chennai, where his dad Vece Paes (a member of the bronze medal-winning hockey squad in the 1972 Munich Games) got him admitted when he was 12, he was regularly getting beaten by boys older to him. It didn’t help that at the same time, his father revealed in a 100-page letter that he was parting ways with mum Jennifer, a former skipper of the national basketball team. “That year in Chennai [in 1986], it was very, very tough. I cried a lot, I was hurting. I wanted to quit.”
When he went back to his home in Kolkata after the first year, Paes Sr asked whether he would like to drop out. “I said no. Send me back for another year. After the second year, I started winning, even more after the third and fourth years. In my fifth year, I was the No 1 junior player in the world and won Junior Wimbledon in 1990. All that hard work paid off,” says Paes.
Consider that, in the same year, he wasn’t allowed entry into the Queen’s Club tournament, which serves as a precursor to Wimbledon. At that point, he had put up with Naresh Kumar in London. Kumar had played in the tournament for many years and had some good contacts. He met the tournament director and bet five pounds that Paes would win the junior event if he was allowed to play.
Paes not only ended up winning at the Queen’s but, a week later, beat South African Marcos Ondruska to romp home at the Wimbledon Juniors.
Paes’s fate was sealed from birth. His father had decided even before Leander was born that his first son would be a professional athlete and, taking a leaf out of an East German coaching manual, he hung multi-coloured balls from his crib to improve his coordination. Vece Paes knew the kid was well on his way when he began to crawl at express speed, “like a wound-up toy”. When he was a tot, Paes, the youngest of three siblings, smashed glass cases with his powerful soccer kicks. After a while, the family stopped repairing the showcase, or painting the house that had walls smeared with stains from mud-caked footballs.
Paes spent a large part of his childhood playing a lot of sports other than tennis, captaining his school, La Martiniere for Boys, in cricket, football and hockey. Every other week, he would hit a tennis ball or two at Kolkata’s South Club, but his fondest early memories of competitive sports came from playing rugby with his father for the prestigious CC&FC (Calcutta Cricket & Football Club) in Kolkata. Then, at 10, when he had concussions, doctors treating him announced that he would never make it as a professional sportsman. That’s when his parents transitioned him to tennis, a non-contact sport. Akhtar Ali, former Davis Cup coach, feels his move to BAT in Chennai was a defining moment in Paes’s career. Vijay Amritraj, who ran the academy, was a little iffy as Paes was still a kid, but allowed him for trials on Ali’s insistence. “I told him there would be nine better players than Leander in the academy. His game and attitude will improve if he plays against them,” says Ali.
His conviction was vindicated in 1990 when Paes, a few months shy of 17, was called to join the Davis Cup team taking on Japan in Chandigarh. When Naresh Kumar, the then team captain, sent Paes for a hit with the senior players, coach Ali, who was seated next to him, told him to check out the boy’s “phutani” (swagger). “I was amused to see that Leander was full of confidence and playing as if he was going to be the No 1 player of the team. He was very bold, not cowed down by seniors,” says Kumar. “I selected him to play in the doubles and was asked to reconsider my decision. I refused and stuck to my guns. The committee was not happy about this.”
At that stage, Paes’s game hardly had any sting beyond serves and volleys. His groundstrokes, as current Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali puts it, “were awful”. “He couldn’t hit three balls from the baseline, but more than compensated for it with his tenacity, fighting spirit and reflexes. Besides, he was quicker than anybody else and had the best net game anybody could have,” adds Zeeshan. That swung the selection in his favour.
His Davis Cup debut was not only a memorable match for Paes himself, but many in the tennis fraternity. Not merely because he was representing the flag, an emotion that has often made Paes tear up, but because of the five-setter he pulled off along with Ali, then the top-ranked Indian player. In a match that lasted for over five hours, the duo beat its Japanese opponents 18-16 in the last set.
Seated behind Kumar’s captain’s chair in the stadium was Ramanathan Krishnan, a two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist in the ’60s. “Watching Leander play, he kept saying ‘unbelievable’. Krishnan was a classical-style player and was bowled over by Leander’s outrageous interceptions and lightning reflexes at the net. I later realised that Leander was best when he was left on his own. His unpredictability was his greatest strength and baffled his opponents,” says Kumar.
Take the tactic he deployed to neutralise Ivanisevic’s boom-boom serve-and-volley play in the Davis Cup tie in 1995. While established tennis wisdom will tell you to stand behind the baseline to fierce servers to take the pace off the ball, Paes did the exact opposite. He stood inside the service line to cut down the lethal angles on Ivanisevic’s serve, step in and take it on a half volley. “It’s something like what Roger Federer is doing now—what fans call the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger),” says Paes.
Early on in the Davis Cup, Paes struck a successful partnership with Ramesh Krishnan, a member of the team that reached the finals in 1987. While the two were chalk and cheese in temperament—Krishnan was quiet and introverted, Paes effervescent—both on the court and off it, their minds met in their quest for excellence. Paes was fascinated with Krishnan’s meticulousness, the way he would grip his racket, make sure the strings would be okay, adjust his clothes in the locker room, wear clean shoes every single time to make sure they don’t skid on court. In his company, Paes was like a sponge, imbibing every good habit that rendered Krishnan into a world-class player.
In fact, not just Krishnan, Paes spent a lot of time in international tournaments observing top athletes and the lifestyle they adopted to optimise their skills. It more than made up for the lack of support staff and infrastructure that he failed to afford in his early years. “When we would go to the Olympics and the Asian Games, I would watch the other players from various sports, what lifestyle they had, what training systems they had, what were they eating between meals, what shoes were they wearing and try to replicate some of it to improve my own routine,” he says. It’s these life lessons that Paes now shares with school and college students, and the corporate world, through motivational lectures. “These are skillsets that increase productivity for students and corporates alike,” he adds.
With Krishnan, Paes brought India one of the most standout Davis Cup victories of his time. The country was playing a World Group quarterfinal tie against France at Frejús, with the hosts as the clear favourites. Not only were the matches held on clay, a surface that the players were less comfortable with, the French team comprised the redoubtable Henri Leconte—a former World No 5 with a “violently eccentric” style of play (as his coach Ion Tiriac had described) and who helped France win the Davis Cup in 1991. Krishnan gave India a shaky start losing the first singles to Arnaud Boetsch, the other former top-20 player France had in its line-up.
Enter Paes. “Before I could change and come back after my match, Leander had already streamrolled Leconte in the first set, winning it 6-1. The Frenchman didn’t know what hit him,” recounts Krishnan. India finally won the tie 3-2 as Paes consolidated his position in the team. He eventually emerged as India’s most successful Davis Cupper with a casualty list that included top guns like Wayne Ferreira, Arnaud Boetsch, Jan Siemerink, Jiri Novak (besides Leconte and Ivanisevic), and a 89-33 win-loss record that placed him fourth on the overall list of successful Davis Cup players.
Paes and Krishnan were a formidable duo, reaching the quarterfinals of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. But as Paes was within sniffing distance of catching up with his father’s Olympic medal, they slipped up and lost. In common parlance, a loss signifies an end; in Paes’s, it was just the beginning. It flagged off an obsessive journey over the next four years for a podium finish in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “I played many more tournaments in South America, or in conditions and altitudes that were the same as Stone Mountain in Atlanta. I played a lot on hard courts, developed certain serve-and-volley skills, certain return skills just so that I could play well in the Olympics. I pride myself on homework and preparation in anything I do,” says Paes.
So, when his tendon snapped in the semifinal match against Andre Agassi, a battle scar that he still carries today in his wrist, and all and sundry associated with the game asked him to forfeit his bronze medal match (between the losing semifinalists) against Fernando Meligeni, he dug in his heels. “I had lived for this day. I was not going to give up. Never,” he says, his face tightening. “I lost the first set. I couldn’t rotate my wrist at all. I was playing off my shoulder. At the beginning of the second set, my mind just turned. For 45 minutes, I was in the zone. I was oblivious to the pain, the dhol-beaters, and the scoreboard. I was just focussed on the lines of the court and the tennis ball. I won the second set, and soon was serving for the match in the third. Mind over matter,” he says, the smile back on his face.
It’s perhaps this spunk that earned Paes a mention in Agassi’s autobiography. “He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands,” wrote the American in Open, words that could describe Paes even today. It’s perhaps this grit that brought him his biggest singles win: Over Pete Sampras at New Haven in 1998. And perhaps this audacity that made him walk up to a lower-ranked colleague and ask him whether he would play doubles with him, a move many said back then was nothing short of crazy. That was till 1998, when they—him and Mahesh Bhupathi—reached the semifinals of three Grand Slams (except Wimbledon). The next year, they did one better, making it to the finals of all the four Grand Slams and winning the French Open and Wimbledon. In the same year, both Paes and Bhupathi became the No 1 doubles players in the world. Most importantly, The Indian Express, as they were called, caught the fancy of the nation that began to sniff a resurgence in the game, not seen since the heydays of the Amritraj brothers. Which is why, when the two parted ways in 2000, the country mourned like it would the loss of a hero, and a blame game kicked off at a frenetic pace.
Reams have been written about the roles of their respective advisors; even more has been said about their communication breakdown. They reunited briefly, but team Lee-Hesh never got back their mojo. In 2011, they parted ways for good.
About the bitter break-up, Paes reels off the words he’s repeated to the press many times over. I rephrase the question twice, ask him whether he regrets not having more titles with Bhupathi. Is their relationship on the mend given that he chose to play in the IPTL, the international tennis league that’s Bhupathi’s brainchild and that Paes earlier bashed for “lack of transparency”? Every single time, his reactions are measured, unlike the flamboyant person that he is. “We’ve always had respect for each other. Yes, we’ve had our differences, we want to both do well in our own way. But there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says.
He’s equally calm about the time when Davis Cup players—Prakash Amritraj and Rohan Bopanna—revolted against him and refused to play under his captaincy. Or the drama in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics when Bhupathi and Bopanna opted out of playing doubles with Paes. (He agreed to settle for Vishnu Vardhan only after being promised Sania Mirza as his mixed doubles partner.) Paes refuses to discuss the events; he’d rather focus on the upcoming Rio Games, putting mind over matter. It’s a phrase that he loves repeating.
Who Paes teams up with for the Rio Olympics in August is an issue that has the potential of morphing into a hot button. But many of his other partnerships on the tour have worked out like a cinch. He fondly remembers the day Martina Navratilova walked into the men’s locker room at the US Open in 2002, tapped him on the chest and said, “You are going to play mixed doubles with me.”
“When somebody of the stature of Martina tells you that, you don’t say no,” says Paes. Together, they played for a few years, won two Grand Slams and “had a lot of fun on the court”. “I played against him before and love the way he competes,” says Navratilova. “With him in deuce and me in the advantage court, we matched pretty quickly. When you play with somebody like him, who knows how to play doubles, it’s like you’ve been playing together forever. Plus, we are both so positive on the court. I’ve never seen him sulk.”
The first time they played was the mixed doubles in the Australian Open in 2003, the only Grand Slam title Navratilova hadn’t won till then. “Not that I had realised it. Leander pointed it out around the semis and I thought how cool is that. So that title win was historical, while the Wimbledon victory that year was more emotional,” adds Navratilova.
Their partnership on the court firmed up their friendship off it. Right after their Wimbledon win in 2003, when Paes had to be admitted to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando with a brain tumour scare (which later turned out to be parasitic infection), she not only helped him power through the phase, but also skipped the mixed doubles category in the US Open to reunite with him in the Australian Open next year. “There are some friendships that are made in heaven. Mine with Martina is one of them,” says Paes.
Something else that has rubbed off on him is Navratilova’s longevity in the game (she won her last Grand Slam title at 49, in the mixed doubles category in the 2006 US Open). At 42, Paes is eyeing a seventh Olympic appearance and is approaching the target with clinical precision. He doesn’t put in as many hours as he did 20 years ago—the body and the muscle memory are already there—but has upped the intensity of practice, playing only for 16 weeks a year and focusing on Grand Slams and big-ticket events like the Olympics. “Every year that I sign up to play tennis, I know that it’s going to take Rs 2.5 crore to invest into my game. And unlike other professions, my salary is not guaranteed. This investment comes from my own pocket. And then I have to go out there, earn my money back and make a profit to keep the profession lucrative. Unless I win big, I lose money every year,” he says.
It helped that he weaned himself away from singles in the early noughties to prepare his body for what he calls the last 100-metre sprint in his career. He doesn’t know when the sprint will end. “One fine day, when I’ll wake up and feel I’m done, I will be done,” he says. “And when it’s finally over, I’ll be even more busy, for there are so many other things to do, achieve and be motivated by—my motivational talks, TV and digital work, charity, autobiography, graphic novel, movies. I’ve had a great journey with tennis and look to use that platform to achieve many more great things in my life,” his voice trails off.
For Leander Paes, the work is never quite done.
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(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)