Leander Paes is at his ebullient best, greeting friends with a vigorous handshake and indulging in hearty laughter before our interview begins.
When he eventually settles down, the Indian legend is at once disarming and witty. Renowned for his eloquent ways, Paes speaks passionately and candidly about his Olympic dreams, the chequered relationship with Bhupathi, and his daughter's backhand. He also tells us why we shouldn't ask him about his retirement, in an exclusive interview with The Hindu here recently.
At 38, you have 12 Grand Slam titles, an Olympic medal, and several other awards. What remains on the wish-list?
I play tennis because I love the game, the competition and the lifestyle it brings along with it. My father has always raised the bar for me and driven me to aspire for greater things. Two years ago he said, “You have achieved more than what I could have asked for.”
I told him last December that I play the game because I am passionate about it. When you play for passion, the energy is potent.
How do you feel — at this point of your career — looking back at the Olympic bronze you won in Atlanta (1996)?
When I stood on the podium… (he pauses) I not only have the pictures to reminisce on; it's a sweet memory. All the hard work and pushing myself came to a pinnacle there. I love playing for India and that spurs me on.
Some people may say a doubles medal is not worth a singles medal but for me winning it (doubles medal) in the London Olympics is the biggest (goal).
What's your equation with Mahesh Bhupathi? Reasons behind the latest split?
We are thorough professionals but I can only speak for myself. If you look at last year, I didn't win a single Grand Slam. Both of us are 37-38 (years old) now and we had a discussion during Wimbledon (about parting ways).
“We needed fresher legs and different partners. My goals are two-pronged this year: winning an Olympic medal and the Grand Slam events.
How is it partnering Janko Tipsarevic in the ongoing Aircel Chennai Open?
Janko just blew me away when he said, “Lee, if there is something you see that I can improve upon, please do tell me.”
Now, he is one of the top 10 players in the world. I probably don't even have a singles ranking. He is such a great champion and wonderful student of life. My new goal for the year is to help him win a doubles title whenever we play together.
Has being a family man changed you as a person?
I have always been a fierce competitor on the court. When I play for my country, I don't give an inch. I play it hard and clean. Off it, I am a very soft person. Spending time with my family, especially my daughter, is very relaxing.
Do you have tennis ambitions for your daughter?
You know what, she turns around to my dad and tells him, “I have a better backhand than him (Leander).” I tell her, “That doesn't say much (he laughs).”
Your post retirement plans?
Right now, my only plan is to make you eat your words about my retirement (grins broadly). I am actually involved in a lot of activities. I act in films, run a sports management company and do graphic novels. But I don't talk a lot about these things; I prefer staying under the radar a bit. Tennis gives me all the limelight.
Keywords: Leander Paes