Hindustan Times, Mumbai
It was meant to be one last roar. Instead, it’s turning out to be a quiet slumber. Leander Paes would have been singing swansongs in various tournaments in his last year as a professional tennis player if not for the suspension of the Tour due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At home since March, Paes—who will turn 47 on Wednesday—is mulling his next note. In a marathon achievement list that comprises 18 Grand Slam titles, record for most doubles wins in the Davis Cup and an Olympic bronze, Paes says in this interview that he wouldn’t shy away from running a final sprint to chase another record: an eighth Olympics in Tokyo next year, which would stretch his own world record of most Olympic appearances by any tennis player.
What has this lockdown meant for you?
The lockdown has been very hard, not just for me but almost everybody around the planet. Personally, I have already had 18 deaths of very close friends or family friends over the last three months because of Covid-19. So it’s close to home.
For tennis players, all of us are out of a job; I haven’t had one since the first week of March. No one is earning. I’ve got homes to run. I look after my elderly parents, my young daughter and have to provide food on their table. Also, I have retained all my staff and I’m still paying them. For a few of us who are lucky enough to have put a little bit of money away for a rainy day, we are also struggling to sustain ourselves. My heart goes out to the other people who might not have that.
Being away from tennis for this long must feel unusual …
It has forced me find ways to reinvent myself. I was on my One Last Roar (farewell) season on the tennis tour, and it started off brilliantly. In Bengaluru (ATP Challenger in February)—which was supposed to be my last tournament in India—people were like, ‘Why are you retiring? You are still playing great’. I got to the finals there, and everyone again goes like, ‘See, we told you so! This shouldn’t be your final tournament’. It was almost like karmic conversations. I played my last match at the Davis Cup (against Croatia in March), where Rohan (Bopanna) and I played really good tennis to win. And then that’s it. I haven’t touched my tennis racquet since.
What this lockdown has also done is given me a breather. In September 2019, I was so exhausted from the 30 years of travel that I said to my team, ‘Guys, I’m just not there. I’m really tired’. That’s what prompted us to come up with the One Last Roar season.
At your age, will such a long break make it doubly hard to press the reset button?
I think it’s quadruply tougher. One, because of my age. Two, when you do it for as long and as loud as I have done it, I sit back now and say, ‘What else is there to play for?’ When I asked my team that question, they said: ‘just play for fun now, play because you love it, enjoy it.’ My dad (former hockey Olympic medallist Vece Paes) is always at me, saying professional sport is a way of life and you must continue with it. I tell him that there will be no end to it, whether you’re 47, 37 or 57. But what is the reason to travel another 30-40 weeks of the year? Give me a motive. Give me inspiration.
Speaking of motivation, there’s a record-stretching eighth Olympic and 100 Grand Slam appearance, of which you’re three shy.
Olympics is the main factor. To make sure that India’s name is forever etched in the history books is a huge thing for me. I’ve run the race so hard and so well already, and to sprint another 100m for the sake of record books is very relevant. Whether the Olympics happen in 2021 or not is a significant issue. Plus, to play the main draws of one hundred Grand Slams is not too bad, no?
What are the areas you need to focus on when you return to the court?
Tennis is like riding a bike for me. The muscle memory that I have is far superior to any young one coming up. As much it takes 10,000 hours and three million repetitions to create muscle memory on each stroke, I’ve maybe got 60,000 hours and 12 million repetitions on each stroke because of eating, living and breathing tennis from the age of 5 to 47. The key will be fitness levels and recovery.
The shoulders are one area that I will have to focus on, because the serve is such an unnatural movement. I have to make sure that the muscles around my playing shoulder are well tuned. That takes a little bit of rubber band work, weights work, bulk building to make sure that the rotator cuff is well oiled; the biomechanics of the kick serve, the slice serve, the rotation of the muscles are in order. Also, because I play doubles, I’ll have to focus on short sprints. But other than that, technique, hand-eye coordination, reflexes—all that is still perfectly intact, and it showed in the way I played at the beginning of this year. Just a few weeks of training and I should be good.
Do you expect tennis to be different in the post-Covid world with no spectators, handshakes or, in your case, chest bumps?
(Laughs) It’ll be very strange not being allowed to do the chest bumps since one founded and started it way back in the day. I don’t think the world post Covid-19 will be the same as before, and it goes for tennis too. High-fives might be low-fives with the feet, racquet taps might replace handshakes. There is a lot of hope around the world that tennis could be one of the first few sports to come back, because there is no real human contact in it. But you’ll have to play with modified rules: Don’t cross the net after every two games. Maybe, you don’t share the balls on the court; your opponent can have six balls on one side and you can have six on another. We also might be playing behind closed doors, which makes it very surreal, especially for someone who loves interacting with the crowd.
But the tough part is the travel. The reason Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A or Premier League can restart is because they’re playing within a country.
When it comes to tennis, how are you going to have athletes from all over the world coming in for a tournament?
That’s the debate around the US Open in New York. The organisers are also thinking of a smaller doubles draw (24 teams from 64) while getting rid of the singles qualifiers.
Global travel is going to be very restrictive so that’s the primary concern. Even the way it is planned—play 64 singles draw and 24 doubles draw. What is that? You can’t give (ranking) points to that. That format, in my opinion, is only catered for local players. And I’m waiting to see the rise of Covid-19 in America because of the protests in support of George Floyd, which is such an important thing at the moment because every life does matter.
So do you see the professional tour returning this year?
I don’t. I think even the beginning of 2021 is in jeopardy at the moment.
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