Leander remains India's flag-bearer even at 40

Last Updated: Tue, Sep 10, 2013 05:48 hrs

Like Sachin Tendulkar, he is 40. But there have been no calls for him to retire. For, unlike Tendulkar who is clearly past his best, Leander Paes is still winning Davis Cup ties for his country, ATP tournaments and even Grand Slam titles. 

The 'Marathon Man' of Indian tennis has been at it for almost as long as Tendulkar for he turned pro in 1991 after becoming only the third Indian to win the Junior Wimbledon title the previous year. 

But whereas in Tendulkar’s case, there are clear indications that it is only a matter of time before he calls it a day, Paes remarkably is still carrying on successfully and one does not know where and when it will all end. Sunday’s triumph at the US Open was his 14th Grand Slam title and his eighth men’s doubles title. 

He has six mixed doubles title too in his bulging bag and in emulating his former partner, the legendary Martina Navratilova, in winning a Grand Slam past 40, Paes has proved that age is just a number.  

By any standards Paes' achievement is phenomenal. He has been playing professional tennis for over 22 years. Not many players in the Open era have had this durability. Just one fact will emphasize his longevity. After winning the mixed doubles title in 2010 Paes became only the second man after the peerless Rod Laver to win Wimbledon titles in three different decades.

Just how does he manage this? Well, as he admitted in an interview a couple of years ago, he loves the game. Yes, it’s that simple. "I started when I was very young. I have been doing it my whole life. For me putting in so much effort into a sport that has given me so much is a joy."

You must enjoy whatever you are doing for a living. That’s the secret of being successful. And that is obviously Paes’ recipe for success too. It’s amazing really that after more than two decades, he has neither lost his hunger for success nor his impish sense of humour. "I love this game. How many people do you know come to the office with shorts on," he jokes. 

The point is that you can never really write Paes off even as he has emerged as the Grand Old Man of Indian tennis. There is no question of taking his foot off the accelerator. 

When reminded that at 40 he is excelling in a sport in which the 20-somethings are calling the shots, he said, "It really doesn’t matter how old you are. If you can keep yourself fit and strong you can keep raising the bar and set new goals and records."

The cynics might say that Paes is playing only doubles and his singles record (except in the Davis Cup) is nothing much to write home about. But it is not easy to keep going at 40 in a highly competitive sport that is increasingly being dominated by young players. 

It must be emphasized that he is not just winning ATP Tour doubles titles but also Grand Slams. His count of 14 titles is a record for an Indian, two above his contemporary and sometimes partner Bhupathi.

Overall Paes has won 53 ATP Tour doubles titles but it is his Grand Slam record that is eye-catching. He won the French Open men’s doubles in 1999, 2001 and 2009, Wimbledon in 1999, the US Open in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and the Australian Open in 2012. 

In mixed doubles he has won the titles at the Australian Open in 2003 and 2010, Wimbledon in 1999, 2003 and 2010 and the US Open in 2008.The only one missing from his trophy chest is the French Open where in 2005 he was a finalist along with Navratilova. 

Maybe that is round the corner for Paes continues to be a livewire on tennis courts round the world. In addition to his 14 titles, Paes has finished runner-up in Grand Slam events 16 times, eight each in men’s and mixed doubles.           

At times like this, I am reminded of my first meeting with Paes. In 1988 I entered the Madras Christian College High School campus in Madras which housed the Britannia Amritraj Tennis (BAT) programme courts. 

Chief coach Dave O’Meara greeted me warmly and in the course of our chat, he pointed out to a 15-year-old practising on one of the courts and informed me that he was a new recruit from Calcutta and was regarded as a player of much promise being the son of former hockey international Vece Paes. 

That was my introduction to Leander Paes. He came across as a cultured, well behaved lad but even then one couldn’t mistake his hunger to taste success.

Now more than 20 years later, he is still continuing to do what he does best – playing tennis to the best of his ability, regaling the audience with his athleticism on court and proudly carrying India’s flag and hopes, when it comes to the Davis Cup or the Olympics. 

One of the most abiding memories in Indian sport is the photograph of Paes shedding tears of joy at winning the bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 – the first individual medal for the country at the Games since boxer KD Jadhav’s bronze at Helsinki in 1952.   

It has not exactly been a smooth ride for Paes. He has had his share of setbacks and disappointments particularly a few years ago when he was the target of an open revolt by members of the Davis Cup squad and had the captaincy snatched away from him even as he and Bhupathi continue to have misunderstandings. 

All this has hurt him no doubt but when Paes is on a tennis court he has this happy knack of putting the seamier aspects behind him. As long as he is around, Indian tennis fans will have something to cheer about. 

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