One question has been knocking on the doors of Indian tennis for the past couple of years; when will Leander Paes retire? At every press conference, in every city, Paes has, subtly and directly, been asked if he’s ready to walk away from the game. The din has grown since he stepped down to the Challenger level in 2017, plying his trade in tournaments that are seen more as training grounds for youngsters. Paes would answer the needling queries with patience: He’s enjoying the game, he’s still passionate about it. But that wasn’t enough; and there weren’t enough victories to make the doubts go away.
On 25 December, less than a month after his record-extending 44th doubles win in Davis Cup, Paes though announced that he will retire at the end of 2020.
“I want to announce 2020 as my farewell year as a pro tennis player,” the 46-year-old wrote on Twitter under the hashtag ‘one last roar’. “…I am looking forward to the 2020 tennis calendar where I will be playing a few select tournaments, traveling with my team and celebrating with all my friends and fans around the world. It is all of you who have inspired me to become me and I want to take this year to say ‘thank you’ to you.”
Paes calling time on his decorated career may have come a lot later than many expected. But this is a man who has defied age: He was still in the world’s top 10 in doubles till the age of 41 and won a mixed doubles Grand Slam title (French Open with Martina Hingis in 2016) at nearly 43. For someone like Paes, whose unbridled ambition has taken him thus far, the struggle to finally let go, to not test his limits anymore, is understandable.
Now that the finish line is in sight, it is inevitable that we look behind at his journey. A highlight reel of all his achievements: Winning junior Wimbledon in 1990, his Davis Cup debut at 16, ascending to No 1 men’s doubles in 1999, winning 18 Grand Slam doubles titles, completing a career Slam in men’s as well as mixed doubles, a stellar Davis Cup career studded with wins over much higher-ranked opponents like Henri Leconte (in France) and Goran Ivanisevic, Davis Cup record for most number of wins in doubles, his win over Pete Sampras in New Haven, his title win at the ATP Newport Open (the last time an Indian man won a singles title). The crowning glory, for Paes, was winning the bronze medal in singles at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He won India’s first individual medal in Olympics after 44 years, and the country has won at least one ever since.
That medal in Atlanta was a breakthrough. In the 1990s, when the Indian sporting landscape was littered with broken dreams and lost potential, Paes was a beacon of hope. He was a heart-warming success story in an athletic world based on cold evidence of results. He didn’t have the most correct of techniques, but he could corner his rivals with lightning fast reflexes and court savvy.
On the eve of the Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in Pune, in February 2017, when Paes was one win away from breaking Nicola Pietrangeli’s record of most number of doubles wins in Davis Cups, I asked him if he had over-achieved. He stopped to think, before saying, “As an athlete, I’m a supreme athlete, so am I surprised that I’m still playing? No. Because I know how much hard work I’ve put in. Talent-wise, yes. I’m not 6 feet-2 with a big serve. My backhand is not conventionally, technically sound. So tennis-wise, yes.”
Unlike most Indian sportspersons, Paes, and his Olympian father, Dr Vece Paes, love to delve into the details. They’ll tell you Leander was bred to be an athlete when he was in the crib or that he had to let go of his first love, football, because he had a heart murmur and was told to avoid contact sports. That his father would give him money almost every day to go play games in a video game parlour in order to build lightning-quick reflexes. As soon as he turned professional, a team, complete with a sports psychologist Dr Jim Loehr, was assembled to give Paes the best shot on tour.
That it was Tony Roche, in late 1990s, who diagnosed that Paes’ game had its limitations in singles but could work wonders in doubles. Paes was disappointed but not disheartened and poured all his energies in the team sport. He trained with athletics coaches to add milliseconds of speed to his game. In the later years, when his body couldn’t take the pounding endurance training, he switched to swimming and rowing machines.
The cornerstone of Paes’ success has been preparation. Together with his team, for three decades, Paes has worked hard enough, invented and reinvented to stay ahead of the curve. It gave him the confidence and courage to fly into any battle. Neither his success nor his longevity was left to chance. It’s not talent or fortune, but meticulous training, which has guided him to 64 doubles and one singles title and 767 wins in doubles at the tour-level.
But while Paes still has the intangibles that have made him one of India’s most enduring sports icons, the physical attributes are starting to fall away. The 46-year-old is now a step slower and a tad tighter in crunch situations. He’s dropped out of the top-100 for the first time since 2000 in November this year. For the first time since he started playing on the tour, in 1990, Paes’ winning percentage by year dipped below 50 in 2019 (he won only 22 of his 47 matches).
His career on last legs, Paes is like a marathon runner limping into the stadium for the final stretch. He may not have any more glory to bring, at Grand Slams or Olympics, but India will stand up and cheer for the journey he’s been on.
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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2019 16:29:28 IST