"Age is just a number" Leander Paes has always insisted. Well, the marathon man of Indian tennis turned 40 on Monday even as he prepared for another Wimbledon campaign. There’s no talk of him riding off into the sunset.
Why should there be when he is still remarkably fit and agile on the court. At an age when most sportsmen have retired, Paes is not just going strong but also winning Grand Slam doubles events.
By any standards his achievement is phenomenal. The fact remains that he has been playing professional tennis for 23 years and not many players in the Open era have had this durability.
The honours sit lightly on his compactly built frame – the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award (1996), the Arjuna award (1990), the Padma Shri (2001) – and he has richly deserved all of them.
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 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 as I said Grand Slams.
His count of 13 such titles is a record for an Indian - one above his contemporary and sometimes partner Mahesh Bhupathi and the break-up is seven men’s doubles and six mixed doubles. At last year’s Australian Open he won the men’s doubles – completing a career slam of the four major championships.
Overall Paes has won 51 ATP Tour doubles titles – the last in October 2012 when he and Radek Stepanek got the better of Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna at Shanghai. He has won the Australian Open in 2012, French Open in 1999, 2001 and 2009, Wimbledon in 1999 and the US Open in 2006 and 2009.
The Australian Open trophy was the last one missing from his cabinet so now that is complete. Well, perhaps not quite for while he has won the mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open in 2003 and 2010, Wimbledon in 1999, 2003 and 2010 and the US Open in 2008 the closest he has come in the French Open was being a finalist along with Martina Navratilova in 2005.
But he could still clinch that with Paes continuing to be a livewire on tennis courts round the world.
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 practicing 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 25 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 wrestler KD Jadav’s bronze at Helsinki in 1952.
He may have turned 40 but there is no indication yet of him calling it a day. The reason? He loves the game as he admitted in an interview some time ago. ``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. "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’’ he said in an interview.
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.