Paris: He has time and again proved to be a magician on court, wielding his racquet like a wand. He can manipulate the play and put the ball agonisingly out of his opponents’ reach. He is the winner of 18 Grand Slam titles — eight in Men’s doubles and 10 in Mixed doubles. For Leander Paes, India’s most distinguished Grand Slam champion at age 42, age truly is just a number.
Since combining together in 2015, Paes and Martina Hingis have won four Grand Slams together completing their team “Career Slam” as well in a short time frame of 18 months. He has equalled the great Martina Navratilova, his former mixed doubles partner, at 10 slams for most titles in the mixed doubles event.
What is the secret to his longevity and his motivation for continuing to play at the highest level?
“Hunger and passion that keep burning inside me. Every Olympics I concentrate and look after each one. I am really happy that I am peaking so well before Wimbledon and the Olympics and that I am happy that I am in great shape, physically fit and strong.”
So can we expect to see an autobiography of Leander soon?
Paes says: “It’s in the works. A couple of friends of mine have compiled an amazing body of work since I started playing as a kid. And they will come out at some point.”
In a fast sport where moving a fraction slower can be the difference between winning and losing, it is remarkable that Paes’ reflexes at the net have not flagged. He is also a master tactician and at times plays a game of chess on the tennis court.
Paes is not the kind of player who relies on power but more on touch and placement because he has got the gift of timing. The right hander from Kolkata can manoeuvre the ball out of reach of his opponents. His mind is always looking for the right shot to cross over and ‘poach’ a winning volley when his unsuspecting opponents are looking for a cross court return.
At other times, he ‘fakes’ as if he is about to cross over but stays put and gets a put away volley. His opponents over the years have been fooled by drop volleys, side spins, angles, lobs and overheads and he says he is still learning every day.
His doubles partners explain their feelings about playing alongside Paes.
Hingis says: “We communicate well both on and off court and he’s great at the net. We both trust each other when it comes to crucial moments. Leander is someone I would trust with my life.”
Such is the belief Paes inspires in his partners.
Polish veteran Marcin Matkowski summarises his strengths on court.
“Leander knows the game. He knows what to do on court to be successful and win. Leander is very positive, confident and is a great champion. At crucial times, he knows how to lead the charge and take advantage,” he says.
So what is Leander’s training regime that keeps him so fit at this age?
Paes reveals his methodology, “The tennis skills are all muscle memory — I know how to hit a serve, the second serve down breakpoint, how to hit a big return when I need it. I love the aspect of staying fit. Competing against the youngsters.
“Right now I am focussing a lot on diet, strength and also on fitness, and speed. My dad (Dr Vece Paes) is very instrumental in that aspect. He has got the experience of working with hundreds of athletes for over 40 years and the theoretical knowledge through research and I have the practical knowledge of playing tennis for almost 30 years.
“I am also aware of what training is done in other sports and also the fitness and recovery regimes of other players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.”