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Leander Paes, India’s first entrant in International Tennis Hall of Fame, looks back at his career and Indian tennis’ transformation

When you hit Leander Paes with a casual ‘how’s life’, you’d seldom expect him to say that he’s enjoying playing golf — with an impressive handicap of 2 no less. He adds that he finally has time to play football, the sport he claims he’s more talented at. And after an extraordinary professional tennis career spanning 32 years, he’s enthralled to be spending time with his parents.

You ask him about tennis, the sport at which he’s been India’s flag-bearer since even before he turned pro back in 1991, and he says he’s content playing exhibition matches.

“I played tennis for most of my life. To be a professional athlete for so long, now when I think of it, is mind-boggling,” the 50-year-old Paes says.

He is much more than just a professional athlete, though. Paes has eight Grand Slam titles in men’s doubles and 10 in mixed doubles. He is one of only three men in tennis history to capture a career Grand Slam in both doubles disciplines. If that’s not all, he shares the record for the most mixed doubles Grand Slam titles in the Open Era with former partner Martina Navratilova.

While it’s highly unlikely that an Indian will better his record any time soon, Paes got himself into tennis immortality last week by becoming the first Indian player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It is also timely recognition of his longevity as a professional, his Grand Slam titles. Also, one can hardly forget the superhuman heights he scaled for the country in Davis Cup and a stunning seven Olympics appearances.

Festive offer

“It’s almost like my life is coming full circle,” he says. “I’m more talented in football. I gave up playing football in Barcelona to take up tennis. My goal at the time was to prove that Indians could be world champions and Olympic medal winners in individual sports. So to be recognised with awards like the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan is amazing. And now to be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame makes everything I’ve sacrificed seem worth it,” he says.

When Paes was making his name as a junior in the tennis world, there was barely any tennis infrastructure or expertise in the country. It’s only now that physical and mental fitness has become a subject. In the 1980s and 1990s, Paes was a pioneer in this regard. And now, the top athletes have the best fitness equipment and regimens.Yet they would struggle to have the kind of longevity that Paes has enjoyed. To think that he managed to stay at the top of his game without having the benefit of the kind of expertise available today is simply down to his dedication to his craft.

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Early struggles

India lacked the infrastructure and Paes lacked the funds to play on the international tour. It was quite a challenging combination.

“Those times were extremely tough. I remember hitchhiking rides in Europe, and sleeping in dressing rooms because hotel rooms were expensive. I got mugged in New York and still have that scar on my chest to remind me of it.”It’s not just the struggles when he was playing though. He almost never made it as a professional.

“I like to say that I’ve had amazing hardships. I have been in a cancer hospital for seven months with a tumour in my brain. Then there was a time when doctors didn’t think I could ever be a professional athlete because of a mitral valve prolapse (heart). I also wore a metal cast for 10 months due to torn ligaments in my right knee caused by too much football as a 10-year-old. It’s only now that I’m not playing the sport and can sit back and think of the struggles I’ve overcome and be thankful for them,” he says.

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Memorable victories

For someone with 55 career titles, it’s tough to single out one, or even five of the best. While he maintains that his 1996 Olympic bronze medal will remain the pride of his trophy cabinet, he says that the Wimbledon junior singles title in 1990 was what gave him the belief that he could have a career in tennis.

“Before winning the Wimbledon junior title, I had lost the Australian Open junior final and that was something that hurt me immensely. I had trained for almost five years and when I lost the final, I questioned myself whether it was worth choosing tennis over football. Only after winning the Wimbledon title did I start to believe that perhaps I had it in me to play the sport at the senior level.

“When it comes to Grand Slams, it’s really difficult to pick a particular one because all of them were special, but I would say the 16-month run I had with Martina Hingis (when he completed a career Grand Slam) was pretty special.”

What’s next?

While Paes is enjoying his time away from the rigours of being a professional athlete, he’s slowly getting settled with his next phase of life.

“I have a business that I’m totally invested in. There’s also coaching, though that’s not a full-time thing,” he says, before revealing that he’s helped Greek tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas in the recent past.

For someone who has had to constantly reinvent his career ambitions, he says his dream remains the same.

“I want to see 250 million kids playing sport in India in the next 15 years. When the grassroots of Indian schools in cities and rural areas are developed, we can spot talent, bring them to academies that nurture talent, and then have a phenomenal sporting ecosystem.

“If Leander can go from playing gully cricket and football barefoot to winning titles all over the world, nothing is stopping us. We’ve bid for the 2036 Olympics. That’s in 13 years. A 10-year-old today could be a 23-year-old medal prospect at those Games. Anything is possible”

Numbers

18 – Number of Grand Slam titles Leander Paes has won. Eight of those in men’s doubles and 10 in mixed doubles

426 – Number of weeks Paes stayed in ATP doubles top 10

37 – Number of weeks Paes topped the ATP Doubles Rankings

7 – Number of Olympic Games Paes has participated in.

© The Indian Express Pvt Ltd

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