The year is 1996. The place, Atlanta. The moment, Olympic history. The man, a 22 year old Leander Paes, receives his bronze medal – a first for Indian tennis!
Cut to 2020. I am in Dubai watching Leander play doubles with Matthew Ebden in the quarter finals of the Dubai Duty Free Championships after defeating the second seed of Ivan Dodig and Filip Polášek. They are playing against the quality outfit of Henri Kontinen and Jan-Lennard Struff. It’s late, cold and windy. Players are in tights to keep themselves warm. Spectators are huddled in sweaters and shawls. The Indians in Dubai are cheering hard for Leander. It feels like home support. With years of service to tennis, one can only imagine the legions of fans he has built up. The match ends at 6-3, 6-3. A defeat. This would typically mean that the losing team goes off court pretty quickly, but no, it’s Leander’s last time playing here. He has announced that it would be the finale season on the tour and after more than 30 years on the professional circuit, it was time to hang up his proverbial boots. This is his one last roar.
He is thronged by ball kids, children and adults alike. He smiles, signs autographs, is hugged by young children, he asks them to practice hard, he shakes innumerable hands and accepts the gratitude of many fans.
It’s now 10.40 pm. He sprints off to shower. By the time we start it’s 11:15pm. I assume he will give me only 5 minutes. A fan comes for an autograph. He is from Mexico. Leander breaks into Spanish to thank him. A global champion!
“2020 is 20 years of playing in Dubai! It’s magical. The memories in Dubai, it’s one of my favourites in the world. The tournament director, Salah Tahlak, Colin McLoughlin, Ramesh Cidambi, and all involved do a phenomenal job in running this event. They take great care of us and that’s part of the reason why I have been able to replicate my good performances here”, he says. He laughs with a child-like twinkle in his eye as I ask him to sum up his career in Dubai, starting with him playing Richard Krajicek many moons ago in 1997. He acknowledges the crowds and says, “I have great support in the Indian tennis community here.” Paes has won 2 doubles titles here, with Mahesh Bhupathi and David Rikl and come up just short three times. This has been a happy hunting ground.
He then reminisces about his childhood. He says, “If you told this young boy from Calcutta that he would be playing for his country for over 30 years with these achievements, he would not believe you.” He says he played gully cricket and football on the streets of Calcutta barefoot, that he played not for trophies but for mishti doi and jalebis. I chuckle. I know the sentiment (being a Bengali myself) about the heft of that prize! He adds, “When you grow up like that, you have a certain passion for life and the sport. And suddenly you are playing for a Wimbledon title, or an Olympic medal, for records, for career slams.”
Lee is almost 47. In this sport and frankly, in any other, that’s a ridiculous number. I ask him about longevity. Of course, there is passion, but what else? “Genetics, hard work, a little craziness and a deep burning desire to master my craft.” He is proud of the win over the 2nd seeds here. “I think its always good to leave on the top.” Desire still burns in those veins. “One last roar isn’t about this last year, it’s about the hard work, the hard yards and the wins in this year. “I knew some day it would come to an end. The one thing I will miss is the friendships.” I can see his eyes are moist. He recounts all the great names he has been proud to call his partners – Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, Radek Stepanek, his friendships with Goran, Agassi, Novak. He turns philosophical. He muses, “Longevity also comes from being a student of life, learning special training methods, trying something new and a crazy desire to keep reinventing oneself. That’s the journey of life will always continue even after tennis.”
Whats next for Leander? There are short term and long term goals till 2025. An autobiography and a movie are on the cards. But what he says next is more compelling since I remind of his stated mission at the Bengaluru Open, an ATP Challenger event, a month ago of his mission to make a grand slam champion. “It’s a very long journey, especially if you are coming from India and in that quest, one must not lose out on the beauty of what sport brings. As much as one looks at the top of the pyramid, I am also looking at the base because that is where the greatest improvement can happen. I would love to take sport into the schools and create that athletic culture.” He rues about the lack of fitness amongst Indians, high rates of obesity and diabetes, and mental health issues. “Use sport as a vehicle to be a happier, healthier community.” He looks at our phones, “and get out of these nonsense social media, gadgets and gizmos. Balance,” he says. The mother in me nods vehemently.
Would he consider being a coach, I probe. We have seen him last year sitting in Stefanos Tsitsipas’ box and sometimes even lacing up his shoes! “The mental aptitude is something where I can make a big difference with – to set a daily lifestyle, fitness, mental strength and managing your day to achieve success.” He describes it as “a method to the madness”. “Sure”, he says. “I would coach if the right one comes along, the one who I believe can win grand slams, but ultimately it’s all about the base, the essence of building champions, the sustainability of programs over time.”
I look at my watch. It’s been over half an hour and it’s quite late. I wish him luck for the season. As we are walking out, I read all the slams listed on the back of the One Last Roar T-shirt he is wearing. It reminds of a band with touring dates. Heck, I think, why not, he is a rockstar of Indian tennis and it’s been a mighty fine gig!