Leander Paes may or may not like the term, but he’s certainly the grand old man of Indian tennis, or tennis as a whole.
Going strong at 45, an age where most of his contemporaries have spent close to a decade in their post-playing careers, Paes hasn’t lost an ounce of the zeal that catapulted him to the top of the game in the early 90s.
As tenacious as he is in the volley on the court, the 18-time Slam champion is as humble off it. In a candid chat with The Statesman, Paes got talking on all things tennis.
His retirement is almost a national obsession now and after having featured in 97 ATP Tour finals, is he considering calling it quits after final No. 100?
“Wow. 97 finals? I clearly did not know that!. Right now, I’m just focusing on playing more Slams and getting my ranking back up to be honest. My last Slam win was two years ago (2016 French Open) and I’m still feeling good you know?”
“Only last month in Dubai, I reached the finals with a first-time partner (American Jamie Cerretani), so there’s plenty still to look forward to!”
Most top professionals have been guilty of prioritising money and rankings over country, even sacrificing tournaments like the Davis Cup and the Olympics to remain ‘fresh’ over what is admittedly a gruelling season. Not Paes, though, for his eyes light up as he discusses his primary goal of 2018. You’d be forgiven for thinking of the Wimbledon or the US Open, but we are talking about the Asian Games.
“I’m preparing for Jakarta and Palembang right now. Full swing. I’ve won a few before but winning a gold in what is likely to be my final Asian Games would really be great.”
“Won a few” is one way to put it, for the man has five golds and two bronzes, not to mention that 1996 Atlanta Olympics bronze in the men’s singles, to his name.
Despite controversies that have dogged him throughout the years, with regards for representing the tricolour, the veteran clearly isn’t jaded by petty politics.
And when it comes to tipping some youngsters for big things in the future, Paes is extremely forthcoming in his admiration for the next gen.
“Yuki Bhambri is doing so, so well. I mean he’s consistently climbing the rankings. What is he, in the mid-80s? The guy’s going to get a main draw entry into the US Open, which is amazing.”
“Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who just beat Canadian sensation Denis Shapovalov, are two more shining lights in men’s tennis for India and definitely ones to keep an eye on.”
Coming to the women’s scene, Paes is all praises for the current India No.1, Ankita Raina.
“How long has she been our top-ranked player? Her work-ethic, physicality and fitness are what set her apart among her peers,” enthuses the 45-year-old.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup may be the talk of the town right now, but the biggest slam of the year, Wimbledon, looms large on the horizon and Paes is backing two familiar names to go all the way at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
“Roger (Federer) is still the man to beat, yeah,” the Padma Bhushan awardee asserts as he continues, “But I’m going for Serena Williams to dominate the opposition in the ladies’ tournament.”
“I mean she won the Australian Open (2017) while pregnant. Now it’s part of folklore and rightly so. She’s an all-time great and to see her win a Slam after delivering would be great story indeed.”
Greater than winning a Slam while pregnant?
“I wouldn’t know, I haven’t been pregnant,” Paes responds with a guffaw.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are two big stars on the comeback trail and Paes has comforting words for both the former World No.1s.
“See, Novak’s already getting back (to his best). He’s been playing some great tennis in Rome, at the French Open and at Queen’s.”
But I’m overjoyed to see Andy back in the midst of things. I mean that guy has been through so much, winning the Olympics, Wimbledon and he keeps coming back. Rehab, surgeries and injuries take a toll on your body and it isn’t easy, I can tell you.”
Does he see parallels between the situation Rafael Nadal and Federer were in and the ones Djokovic and Murray find themselves in?
“The media and the fans had written those two off, hadn’t they? I absolutely love the way they plan their calendars. Roger skips the claycourt season entirely and Rafa doesn’t play all hardcourt tournaments. Some people may not approve of it, but for me it’s just another hallmark of their greatness,” insists Paes as he signs off.