Melbourne: “I’m getting a few goosebumps man, it’s starting to hit me a little bit. It’s been a long ride. It’s been a good ride. It’s been a fun ride.”
Just before speaking to the press, Leander Paes requested the Australian Open officials to just wait for a few minutes as he could watch Roger Federer’s final few games as he staged a remarkable comeback against Tennys Sandgren on Rod Laver Arena. As he stepped into the interview room, he was gazing outside into Melbourne Park, taking it in one last time.
“My first year here was in 1989. The first Grand Slam I played was here in Australia on court No 21. In 1990, I was in the junior boys singles final,” said Paes, reminiscing his time here in Melbourne.
Unfortunately for the veteran Paes, he crashed out of the second round of the mixed doubles tournament, losing to the pair of Jamie Murray and Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
“In every tournament I’ve played in, there’s been that one match which has been a tough match. I knew if you get past that match, you turn a corner, and if you do that, you’re a straight run to win the title. Playing Bethanie (Mattek-Sands) and Jamie (Murray), they’re real veterans of doubles, played great battles. They know how to win. I knew today was going to be a tough one and that we had to turn a corner. If we could, the title would have been a realistic choice.
Speaking about the match, he might have slightly injured himself during the beginning of the match. However, it was not a cause for concern as he recovered almost immediately.
In the beginning of the match, when I went for a backhand smash, I came down really awkwardly on my ankle and I rolled it, so that was a tough start. I was able to go past it after speaking to the trainer and we worked past that. In the second set, we had a great chance when we broke to go up 5-3. We would have had a great chance if it went to the match tie-break having already won one. So, if we won the second set, we would have been in with a great chance but it goes to show what a champion team they are.”
End of an era
It’s hard to imagine what the landscape of Indian tennis would look like without Leander Paes. As the 46-year-old youngster stepped out on the court for one last time at Melbourne Park, partnered with someone less than half his age, he gave it his all. The energy, the passion, the hunger — it was all there. Unfortunately, his game was probably not at the same level it was many years ago, or even say, five years ago.
Over 30 years of tennis, 1000 matches, 18 Grand Slam titles, and 1 Olympic bronze medal. That’s how long Paes has been around for. To put things into context, Roger Federer was 7, Novak Djokovic was 2, and Rafael Nadal was 3. India’s New Economic Policy, the abolition of apartheid, Y2K, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — Paes has played through it all.
“Playing in 2020 has been five different decades and that is mind-boggling. It still hasn’t fully sunk in yet because I’m being professional right now about the match. It will sink in at some point but I’m just very blessed to have a great career. Blessed to have a great team behind me," he said.
To still play with the same level of motivation as he did on the first day he stepped out on the court in 1989 is phenomenal. The energy he brings to the court is infectious as he always pumps himself and his partner up after every single point. By his own admission, he doesn't know how he has managed to go on, but what he does know is that he’s going to play this year with the exact same amount of passion and energy as any other year.
“I’m going to do this year the best that I can. I’m going to do it the usual style of playing my heart on my sleeve and giving it everything I got - celebrating with my partner, celebrating with my fans, and my team. The personality that I have, I’m going to be the best that I can. If I’m going to this One Last Roar, I’m going to do it the best way I know. If I win a Grand Slam along the way, that would be the best way to go out.”
One Last Roar. That’s the tagline Paes is going in with for his final year on tour. Shortly after the Australian Open, Paes will travel back to India for the Tata Maharashtra Open to take place in Pune. It is surely going to be an emotional one for the Indian, with Pune being his hometown.
Not enough words to thank Craig Tiley and @australianopen for giving me an opportunity to start my #OneLastRoar tour here. BIG thank you to all my fans and supporters for all the love you’ve given me from 1989 till 2020 at AO! I’ll always remember playing my 1st Grand Slam here. pic.twitter.com/g1ny75qEyX
— Leander Paes (@Leander) January 29, 2020
“Playing the last year through 2020, I have named it One Last Roar to pay respect to everyone who has been behind me,” he said.
It’s obviously going to be emotional. Like I said, it still hasn’t fully sunk in yet. But, it’s going to be an emotional year. Especially next week, when I play in Pune. I already know the rumblings. People are trying to keep certain surprises secret but I know about the rumblings that are going on. To play in India and for India all these years, to play for 1.4 billion people and to represent the country has been my greatest honour. To go back for one last roar is not going to be easy,” he continued.
Over the course of 30 odd years, Paes has played with 156 partners, both in men's doubles and mixed doubles. It would probably be an impossible task for the Indian to pick one favourite partner after forming so many formidable partnerships and having great relationships with the players.
It all started off with Mahesh Bhupathi, arguably his best men’s doubles partner. 'The Indian Express' won three Grand Slam titles and brought India back on global tennis map. Despite having a tumultuous relationship with Bhupathi, being involved in a few controversies and public fall-outs, Paes fondly remembers his partnership with Bhupathi, amongst the many men’s doubles partners he has had.
He also formed formidable partnerships with Radek Stepanek and Martin Damm. More than men’s doubles, the success he had in mixed doubles was outstanding. Partnering up with the two Martinas — Navratilova in the early 2000s and then Hingis just a few years ago — Paes won numerous titles with the two legends of the women’s game.
“Mahesh Bhupathi and I grew up as young boys together and were able to prove to India that we could be champions. Radek Stepanek was one of the most intelligent partners I had. Martina Navratilova taught me about the longevity of life and playing and staying fit and healthy. She is family to me, as is Martina Hingis. We’ve had some amazing memories together. Cara Black, Martin Damm.. the list goes on. I’ve played with 130 men’s doubles partners approximately and I think Jelena is my 26th mixed doubles partner,” he said.
However, as most of us remember, before he turned into a doubles specialist, Paes took the world by storm with his performance on the singles circuit. In 1996, the then 23-year-old made history for India, winning the first-ever singles medal in tennis. To this date, Paes thinks of it as the most memorable moment of his illustrious career.
“Standing on the Olympic podium and watching the Indian flag going up was my most memorable moment. Growing up as a kid, I would polish my dad’s medal every Sunday and eventually, winning that medal was one of the only dreams I had as a young boy. If I had won 29 Grand Slams but hadn’t won an Olympic medal, it would feel incomplete. If I had won 1 Olympic medal and won 0 Grand Slams, it would feel complete.
"Playing in the Olympics is the epitome of an athlete’s career and playing for India, especially with 1 billion-plus people, there is a big responsibility to motivate people and to prove to young kids that if I could be a champion despite not being tall or not having a big serve, they could be champions in anything they want,” he said.
In a sport like tennis, most players go on to become successful coaches or commentators after their playing career. While Paes does have those items on his agenda, there are plenty of other things he is looking at.
“Despite knowing that I have another year or two left in me, there are a lot of things lined up for me next year. There are many different things I’m looking at. Motivational talks, corporate speaking, life building, career-enhancing, coaching, books, movies, commentary — there are a lot of options. However, with so many options, you can’t do everything. You have to pick the right one. It’s about choosing the right one and do it well."
“I think being a perfectionist and being an athlete who’s had a big career, you remember the ones you lost. You remember those moments that you could have turned the match around. You remember those situations where if you had done things differently, you would have been on the right side of the result. Overall, if you look at five decades of playing and 30 Grand Slams here, I can’t ask for much more. I really can’t.”
Over the course of five decades, there have been wins, losses, controversies, and everything in between. Paes sums up his career perfectly as he bids goodbye to Melbourne Park for one last time, as a player.
“It’s been a career really well done. More than anything, gratitude comes to my mind. When you come from a lineage of champions where you’re the least talented person on the table, it’s a very humbling feeling.
"When you’ve had a career this long, the real essence of what tennis means to me is education. No book in any curriculum could teach me how to be a student to all these partners I’ve had. Tennis has been a phenomenal education for me and I choose to take these skills and spread the knowledge around the world.”
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2020 20:16:09 IST