Leander Paes walks into the sunset

Leander Paes at the Bengaluru Open

Leander Paes at the Bengaluru Open   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

Paes, in his farewell year, talks about his plans after hanging up his boots

The pressure of retirement is less in individual sports than ones involving teams. Failures in the farewell years, even if the athlete in question is among the pantheon of all-time greats, can evoke the uncomfortable question of dragging out a career for the greed of personal milestones. With an ageing body, it is difficult to find an answer. Those from individual sport, on the other hand, have the allowance to say goodbye whenever. They usually bid adieu when the body tires or the mind struggles to inspire. For Leander Paes, despite being 46 (well past the usual age of retirement in tennis), the reason is neither.

“I know that with my physicality and mental attitude, I could play for another two or three years if I wanted,” he said on Tuesday, 24 hours before his first match at the Bengaluru Open. He knew it might be his last professional tennis match in India. Last Christmas, he announced on Twitter that 2020 is going to be his farewell year. And, the Bengaluru Open is likely to be his last tournament at home.

“The years that I've played tennis, at the end of every year, I've asked my team to look for new goals. I've asked my team, ‘what are we playing for in the new season?’. The last three or four years, there is really nothing else to play for.”

Fair enough for the winner of an Olympic medal, 18 Grand Slams, and 54 ATP titles to say this. Despite a prolonged dry spell – his last ATP title came in 2015 – Paes has been trying to be in all levels of tournaments, from Challengers to Slams, because he says he enjoys “the lifestyle of tennis.”

He has travelled, trained, and triumphed all over the world. But after three decades, he says, “Being on the professional circuit 35 weeks a year is very hard. I find that there are other things in my life now.”

  • Paes is the only Indian tennis player to win an individual medal at the Olympics. He won bronze at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
  • He is the first Indian and the only tennis player to have participated in seven Olympic Games. He hopes to extend the record at Tokyo this year.
  • In 2010, Paes became the second man in history to triumph at Wimbledon in three different decades (matching Rod Laver) when he clinched the mixed doubles title with Cara Black.
  • With Mahesh Bhupathi, he has won 303 matches, which includes 26 titles (three of which are Grand Slams)

Autobiography. Biopic. Business. Sports education. Paes is already planning his second innings. “This transition takes a lot of time... So, I have spaced it out over the next five years.”

Paes’ partners

Paes recalled the contributions of his father Vece Paes (who was part of the Indian hockey team that won the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics), his coaches, and managers in making him the player that he is today.

He also thanked his 130-plus doubles and 20-plus mixed doubles partners. “I've been so blessed to have some of the greatest partners anyone can ask for. I don't need to rattle off the names of Navratilova, Hingis, Stepanek and Mahesh.”

“Choosing partners is something that I instinctively know. It comes from the fact that I know my strengths and weaknesses. It is more important to know your weaknesses. And then to find a partner whose strengths make up for your weaknesses, and my strengths make up for his or her weaknesses. I think the compatibility of two partners is very important.”

“Communication is really important. Because when you are playing at Wimbledon, and you are 4-4 in the fifth set, you have to make a split-second decision on where you are serving and how you are planning to cover a certain part of the court.”

One last roar

Paes’ father and his team motivate him to go on. “My team is trying to convince me to continue. My dad is always after the team asking ‘Has he done his gym? Has he done his stretching? Has he done his practice?’ My team is actually motivated for me to play the 2021 season.”

But the 46-year-old is just focused on his ‘one last roar’, as his T-shirt says. “Every time I step on court, I feel like this may be my last match. Whether it was at [the Australian Open in Melbourne], [at Tata Open Maharashtra] in Pune last week or in Bangalore now. It is going to go throughout the year. I feel like playing in the Grand Slams, hopefully in the Olympics [in Tokyo], in the ATP Tour. It is really about going out there and doing the best I can.”

For a boy, who started his career in the early 90s, wanting to emulate his parents in participating at the Olympics (Paes’ mother Jennifer was part of the Indian basketball team in the ‘72 Games), Paes has come a long way. “When I look back at my body of work, it sometimes puts a smile on my face. But… I know it will come to an end one day.”

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 1:27:13 AM |

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