I used to sleep hugging my Olympic medal: Leander Paes

Legend
Leander Paes has had a fantastic career. File photo: AFP
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Leander Paes is one of the greatest Indian tennis players of all time. He holds an Olympic bronze medal in singles, which he won at the 1996 edition in Atlanta, and has as many as 18 Grand Slam titles (eight in doubles and 10 in mixed doubles). In 2010, the 47-year-old became only the second man after Rod Laver to win a Grand Slam in three different decades when he lifted the Wimbledon mixed doubles trophy.

Twenty-nine years after playing his first ATP Tour event, the doubles exponent was planning to bring his storied career to a close this season. His aim was to play select tournaments throughout the year as part of a farewell tour named ‘One Last Roar’. With the tour being suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Paes is now confined to his home in Kolkata. However, although many of his contemporaries have become coaches and many of his juniors have already hung racquets, his hunger for tennis is far from satiated.

In an exclusive interview with Malayala Manorama, the legendary player looks back at his journey with joy. He also talks about the farewell tour, future plans, and more.

Excerpts:

How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect you?

This (2020) was supposed to be my last year as a professional tennis player. Each match of the tour was really important to me. I have to play in three more Grand Slams to reach the milestone of playing in 100 majors. If I take part in the Olympics next year, it will be my eighth Games.

Professional tennis has been in cold storage since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Will you reconsider your plans to retire?

I haven't thought about it yet. If the Olympics takes place next year, I may rethink my decision to retire. However, I will be happy and content even if I quit tennis without playing another match.

Proud moment
Gold medallist Andre Agassi flanked by silver medallist Sergi Brugera, left, and bronze medallist Leander Paes at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. File photo: AFP

In your trophy-laden career, which is your most cherished achievement?

There is more than one title that holds a special place in my shelf, and in my heart. The first one definitely is the bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It was a wonderful feeling standing on the podium with my head held high. I was in a dream world for the next one year or so. I used to carry that medal in my travel bag and sometimes sleep hugging it.  Among my Grand Slam achievements, the ones I value the most are the Wimbledon titles. The most special one is the mixed doubles trophy that I won there partnering Martina Hingis in 2015.

Throughout your career, you have invited criticism for changing your doubles partners frequently. How do you react?

I have partnered with 136 players in men’s doubles and 26 players in mixed doubles. All of them have had a great influence on my career. There were so many different partners with different skill sets and I'd learn from their strengths, so that we could complement each other as a team. I’ve never forced them to change their game or adapt my playing style. Even after parting ways, I maintain a good relationship with most of them. I know their families, their likes and dislikes and even the name of their pets.   

What are your post-retirement plans?

I strongly believe sports is essential for building a healthy generation. I’m fit and healthy at the age of 47 only because of sports. I’ve planned a project to promote physical and sports activities in schools in India. The objective is to travel across the country and share my experiences and knowledge with children.

Joy unbound
Leander Paes and Martina Hingis celebrate after winning the 2015 Wimbledon mixed doubles title. File photo: AFP

In India, did you get the recognition that you deserved?

Tennis is a global sport. It is popular across five continents. I get love and recognition wherever I play. It is a fact that tennis does not enjoy the status of cricket in India. But I don’t think that in any way stopped people from coming out and supporting me. 

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