Holding Serve: Tennis’ Leander Paes

Holding Serve: Tennis’ Leander Paes

by MATTHEW CRONIN

Leander Paes picks up the phone from his hotel room in Madrid, and with a song and a chuckle in his voice answers “city morgue.” I laugh and introduce myself. He lets me in on a joke, that after a long practice his doubles partner, Radek Stepanek, had said he would bring him flowers and dance on his grave.

Paes is not ready to go 6 feet under yet, let alone retire from the tennis world, even though he’s been on the tour for more than 20 years. No player can enjoy every single moment of his career, not with the constant grind of travel, practice, workouts, rehabilitation and matches.

But Paes is a positive type who doesn’t need much outside stimulation to become excited about his sport. This season, with the London Olympics looming, he was pumped up to compete from the time that the second hand of Big Ben touched 12:01 AM on January 1.

Paes is an Olympic baby—literally. His father, Vece, was a member of the bronze medal Indian field hockey team in the 1972 Munich Olympics, and his mother, Jennifer Dutton, also competed in that Olympics as a point guard for India’s basketball team.

The ultra quick doubles standout is looking to become the first Asian male to participate in six straight Olympics. While most tennis players will say that the Grand Slams are more important than Olympic medals, Paes is not in that camp.

Paes, who was born June 17, 1973, claims he was conceived during Munich Olympics. His father and mother regaled him with stories of those Games, and he dreamed of one day participating in them.

Paes (left) with one time partner Mahesh Bhupathi

“Winning an Olympic medal is the best thing I have ever done in my life,” he told South Asia Journal. “I’ve been in 27 Grand Slam finals and they are all special in their own way. Each trophy that I look at is motivating to me because they all tell me stories about what it took to win them, but my Olympic journey was the journey of lifetime. To me, any motivation is a good motivation. It’s what you do with that motivation that matters. I had the motivation to get to No. 1 and did, so I checked [that] off. The same with winning Grand Slam titles. I’ve been to six Olympics, now what’s ahead? Having achieved a goal is important, but it’s what you do with it that makes a difference.”

Somewhat remarkably, Paes’ sole Olympic medal came at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, when he beat Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni for the bronze in singles. The reason why that accomplishment is unusual is because Paes was never a top drawer singles player, but has always been an excellent doubles player, earning the No. 1 ranking and winning seven Grand Slams. But in the past five Olympics in doubles, he is medal-less, even while playing with the same partner he earned the world No. 1 doubles ranking with, fellow Indian Mahesh Bhupathi.

Paes says time and time again that developing and maintaining close relationships are what drives him and what’s most important to him, but that doesn’t quite mesh with the fact that he has had 87 different doubles partners over his 20-year career. Without question, life relationships and career relationships are two different things for Paes, who has been with the same coach, physical trainer and yoga master for the better part of a decade. Career and life tend to intersect frequently, and at times he has found his personal philosophy conflicting with his job choices.

“That blows me away,” he said of the number of partners he’s had. “It makes me feel like I’ve been around a bit, but what’s been amazing is learning from all them. I come from a team background and it was a bit of learning experience for me to discover that tennis can be very much a business. But in a demanding sport the selfishness of athletes is very necessary for excellence.”

Paes speaks in a soft voice so seemingly packed with wisdom that at times you forget you are talking to an athlete. He reads a lot, is a practicing Buddhist, and takes time to meditate. For the 38-year-old, life and career are part of a journey, with a means but no apparent end in sight. Like former American tennis star Andre Agassi, Paes speaks of process. Interestingly enough, it was Agassi who took away a potential gold medal match from Paes at the Atlanta Olympics in the semifinals.

Paes talks about keeping life in perspective, and credits his parents for teaching him a skill set where he can see things clearly, even in the face of criticism.

“When you are little kid from Calcutta and No. 1 in the world, people can get into your head sometimes, so you have to stay grounded,” he said. “You learn that longevity of results and relationships are better than quick fixes. Sure you go through tough times when people want you to do something, you took a tough loss or Agassi beats you in the semis of the Olympics when everyone wanted you to win that, but at end of the day people see the effort and passion behind what I do and that’s been my ultimate standard bearer. Sure I’ve won and lost some and the history books will write about that, but it’s really about the one-on-one relationships that connect you to the world and how you appreciate them.”

Paes played every sport imaginable as a child, and was an excellent football player, but he became hooked on tennis when he hit with former Indian player Anand Amritraj during a Davis Cup tie in his hometown of Calcutta in 1986. He was later offered a place at Anand’s brother Vijay’s tennis academy in Madras. Vijay, who played in the 1970s, and Ramanathan Krishnan, who played in the 1950s and 60s, are India’s two most accomplished singles players. But their statistics do not match up to Paes in doubles.

Paes’ mother offered him unconditional support, as did his father, but Vece was more forward looking. He’d pat his son on the back after losses, but after wins, he’d quickly congratulate him and immediately focus on the next goal, which is how Leander still is today: grab the “W” and immediately prepare for the next clash.

Despite having eye-hand coordination to die for, success did not come immediately to Paes. But he continued to work hard and study the game, and in 1990 he won the Wimbledon junior singles title, which launched his pro career. But the joy he felt in raising the boys’ trophy at the All England Club quickly dissipated and the harsh reality of being a 17-year-old boy amongst stronger and mentally tougher men set in.

“I could not win a match and the year before I didn’t lose a match,” he recalled. “And for a young kid traveling out of India without my parents or coach around – I barely had enough money to keep afloat.”

Paes was so poor at that point that when he was playing Challenger tournaments in Germany (tennis’ minor league events) that he had to befriend locker room attendants so he get them to leave the heat on so he could spend nights sleeping there.

“You go through those times when you didn’t have money for travel, when you had to win matches to be able to pay for a hotel night and that toughens you up,” he said.

After six months of what at that point he considered to be fruitless labor, Paes returned home. His parents picked him up at the airport but he didn’t speak a word to them in the car. When he arrived home, he threw his rackets into a corner. He told his parents he was done with the sport and that he would never play again.

“The way they handled me was amazing,” he said. “They didn’t ask me what I was going to do the next day, or push me, and didn’t ask about tennis at all to a point where I thought they were weird,” he said. “Then eight weeks went by and I started to miss the game, the competition, the camaraderie, the mastering of the shot. Finally I asked my mom, ‘What’s wrong with dad, he’s not asking me about tennis?’ She said, ‘You don’t have to play tennis, you will always be our son.’ That turned my life around and I haven’t stopped playing since.”

While Paes’ single career didn’t last long, he quickly proved that he would be a force of the doubles circuit. He was explosive when he arrived on tour and is still a tour de force moving to the ball even at the age 38, when many men has have lost a step. His fellow pros are amazed at his catlike quickness around the net, the way he can crack volleys and pick up other players’ tendencies. He routinely executes delicate drop volleys off the hardest shots imaginable.

“He still has the fastest hands in the doubles game,” former doubles No. 1 Mark Knowles told me. “We are all dealing with father time and he’s done a great job of keeping his reflexes intact. And he reads the game of doubles as well as anyone. What I think he does the best of anyone is getting the most out of his partners.”

Through mid-May, Paes had collected 50 doubles titles (seven of those being Grand Slams) and six Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, two of which he won at the 2003 Australian Open and Wimbledon with the legendary Czech American player Martina Navratilova, widely considered the best women’s doubles player ever, and by some the best singles player ever. Navratilova was wowed by Paes, whom she called “spiritually fun” to play with.

Paes also won majors with Cara Black, a native of Zimbabwe who is married to his physical trainer, Brett Stephens. She said of Paes: “[He’s] just easygoing, [he] lets you be, makes you feel so comfortable. He makes you feel like gold. You feel he’s got your back all the time.”

To some, like his current doubles partner, Stepanek, Peas encourages devotion. Knowles says that Paes has been the leader in every one of his partnerships and dictates on court strategy. To others, like his long time now ex-partner Bhupathi, he could be a little more loyal.

After Stepanek helped Paes win his first Australian Open doubles crown early this year, which completed the career Grand Slam for the Indian [titles at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open], he recalled that before they teamed up he said, “Partner, I will give you my heart, everything, to reach these goals.”

Off court, Paes does not come off as a controversial person and Knowles says that most players like him. But on court, he is very much an in-your- face player, which has led him to a few confrontations, most notably at the start of 2011 in Australia, when he had just reunited with Bhupathi.

There, the Argentine Juan Monaco and Spaniard Feliciano Lopez grew angry at Paes during a victory by the Indians. Lopez and Monaco accused Paes of bullying them and there was an ugly confrontation at the net after the match.

“The match going along quietly,” said Lopez, “but Paes is that type of player, he was trying to provoke us all the time. Some days you can deal with him and other days you can’t. The tension of wanting to win can sometimes be confrontational, and we feel upset by their attitude. He was constantly screaming and pumping his fist in my face. He was trying to annoy us, and at one point we got tired of that style. It’s the

style he been using the past 20 years.”

Paes denied trying to do any such thing, saying he was merely being enthusiastic and trying to pump himself up.

But two years prior to that while playing World Team Tennis for the Washington Kastles versus the New York Sportimes, Paes got into a screaming match with fellow player Robert Kendrick and the legendary John McEnroe, both

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of whom are known to be temperamental. Paes had nailed Kendrick in the chin with a volley, and then Kendrick hit Paes—who was not the receiver—with a first serve a few points later.

“Paes went at Kendrick, intentionally hit him with the ball pretty much as hard as he could, and that’s scary,” recalled Sportimes owner Claude Okin later. “You can hurt somebody that way. Kendrick went back at Leander with his response, but it started with Leander going at Robert. We have no idea why he did it. Leander said ‘Somebody’s gonna get hurt out there,’ and then he hit him. “

Paes is a man of many on court faces, but it’s hard to think of him and not also conjure up the face of his longtime partner Bhupathi, whom he enjoyed the most long-term success with.

“Lee and Hesh” as they are sometimes called, were tagged with the nickname “The Indian Express” and played together for eight years before splitting for the first time in 2004.

In 1999, the duo won three Grand Slam titles and reached the finals in all the four majors, the first time it was achieved since 1952. In April of 1999, they became No. 1.

But eventually the relationship soured. Some say because their respective teams didn’t get along, others say because there were on court leadership issues, and some say because both wanted most of the attention and that’s impossible when are partnering another man who is just as charismatic. Perhaps most importantly, they weren’t getting the same good results.

As Knowles says: “Doubles is a cut throat world. You can be friends one day and enemies the next. You grow up in the singles mentality and even though it’s doubles, everyone is always looking out for their own best interests and which other player they might able to go further with.”

Paes and Bhupathi occasionally played together

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when competing for India, but problems did pop up. In 2008, Bhupathi and fellow Indian players Bopanna, Prakash Amritraj and Karan Rastogi wrote to the All India Tennis Association to say they did not want Leander to captain the Davis Cup team, saying he was too publicly critical of them. There was also said to be antagonism by certain members of the All India Tennis Association toward Bhupathi, who had formed the successful sports and entertainment event company Globosport, which at times conflicted with the Association in the running of tennis tournaments.

Paes said it had all become too much: “Too much pressure on the partnership. We were No. 1 in the world for quite a few years and got to the all four Grand Slam finals in the same year. So if we won, everybody expected it; if we lost, it was like, Whoa, really? So we just wanted to give the friendship a bit of a breather.”

But in late 2010, after the two were having limited success with other partners they decided to give it another go and for a while, they were successful, winning three titles. Once again they were yin and yang. Mike Bryan, part of the world’s most successful doubles team over the past decade with his twin brother Bob, saw some of their chest bumping themselves in the Indian Express and were happy to be able to face another talented, notable and enthusiastic team.

“Leander carries the attitude and Bhupathi is more of a quiet leader,” Mike said. “We’ll see flashy shots from Leander, some consistent shots from Bhupathi and lots of chest bumps. Leander comes out and struts his stuff, but he has the right to be because he’s the magic man. He’s in your face, close to net, snapping off balls with his head high.”

After winning the 2011 Miami title, the two appeared as in tune as the identical twins. Paes noted how their on court personalities were blending perfectly.

“When the going gets tough, when the pressure is on, I’m more stable,” he said. “Hesh has got that huge return, so he can just light it up. So we take roles. That’s also the beauty about being on the tour so much as individuals for so long. Sometimes, when he’s playing great, he leads the team; when I’m playing great, I lead the team. There’s no craziness there. We do what’s best for the team.”

But that was not the case after they went through a slump in the fall. By the time of the year-end ATP World Finals, most of the tennis world knew they were going to split again. Bhupathi was going to play with Bhopanna, and Paes had secretly decided to play with Stepanek. Paes would not speak to the issue, but Bhupathi did sound like he felt a little betrayed, although both would also say that their personal relationship would survive.

“Leander just felt that we were possibly a little too old on the tour and not able to gel on a consistent basis. He felt that our team needed fresh legs on either side,” Bhupathi said. “It is very hard for me to explain that decision. It wasn’t my decision. When we started playing last year the Olympics was a goal, Australia and the World Championships were a goal, and I had a feeling we would see our careers into the sunset. But as I said, Leander has a difference of opinion and I have to respect that. There is no fallout.”

At the start of this year, Paes was in no mood to talk about Bhupathi. When a TV reporter from India began to ask him a question about it, Paes shouted out, “Don’t go there!” And the reporter didn’t.

Paes sees a doubles partnership as almost like a brotherhood, saying that the real skill of doubles is about two individuals covering the court greater than the sum of two.

“Its an aura you set around you,” he told me. “One of my little secrets is that my partners weaknesses have to be my strength and vice versa.”

So Paes, who is not the tall and does not own a huge serve, looks for men who can crush serves and have big groundstrokes. They also have to be pleasant and as hard working as he is. He is also willing to change, saying that earlier this year, when he played with the creative Janko Tipsarevic in Chennai, that the Serbian opened his mind to a new way of returning serve, where he no longer visualizes that there is a net man, which makes him more consistent as he’s not as concerned about hitting around an obstacle. “Once I get the ball in play then my speed takes over, my talent takes over, my ability to read the game takes over,” he said.

Paes has become a sporting icon in India and is now moving into taking some acting roles in Bollywood, too. He will make his debut in the film ‘Rajdhani Express’, playing the role of a terrorist. He is married to the model Rhea Pillai, the ex-wife of Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, and before wedding Pillai, he was married to the actress Mahima Chaudhry. He talks about his post retirement plans, which could include more acting, developing new businesses, giving corporate motivational speeches, or working with kids. Being a good role model matters to him.

He says that being a celebrity does not get to his head, because in some ways, being a celebrity is all he’s known. Even as a 5 year old he was the mascot of the Indian basketball and hockey teams. He vividly recalls an old India vs. Pakistan hockey match in Calcutta like it was yesterday.

“There were 105,000 people watching and my dad had to take the final penalty shot and I was on the field on the bench. After my dad scored to win it, my dad was trying to reach me, but he had about 40,000 people surrounding him. I ended up on the back of a mounted police horse—that guy was a huge fan of my dad—I was crying because I had never seen that many people before.”

Tennis however, is a much more solitary existence than that of a team sport, but Paes likes that part of it. He mentions how any person who is at the top of their fields—such as US President Barack Obama, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates or legendry investor Warren Buffet—all have their idiosyncrasies, but that in striving for excellence they spend time in solitude mastering their art. “That’s always a uniting factor and that’s what we can all recognize in each other,” Paes said.

As many other athletes have said, Paes believes sports can transcend religion and politics, sort of like it did at the 1972 Olympics in Munich when despite a terrorist attack during the Games that led to the death of 11 Israeli athletes, the international athletic community eventually decided to play on.

But tennis politics are a serious business and it’s conceivable that the All India Tennis Association will not choose Paes to play with either Bhupathi or Bhopanna. Paes is currently ranked No. 7 and any top 10 doubles player who is nominated by their nation automatically gets in. However, Bhupathi and Bhopanna are ranked No. 12 and 13 respectively, and will more than likely make the Olympic cut too, which means that it’s conceivable that Paes will have to play with Somdev Devvarman, but he’s been hurt all year, or No. 130th ranked Divij Sharan, which would put his chances at a medal at between slim and none given the quality of the competition.

Paes says he’ll play with anyone, but it doesn’t sound like Bhupathi will. After he and Bhopanna beat the world No. 1 team of Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor at the tournament in Rome in May, Bhupathi tweeted: “Nice to get a win over the number 1 team in the World . . . Hope the powers in Delhi are watching.”

Bhupathi has also said he wants to play with Bhopanna at this Olympics because he and Paes could not get it done in four tries in previous Games.

To complicate the matter, Bhupathi and India’s top woman player, Sania Mirza, won the French Open mixed doubles title in June, but they are not guaranteed to play together at the Olympics because the Indian Tennis Association could pair Mirza with Paes, whom she has played with before.

“We’d love to play with each other, but it’s not really our call,” Mirza told me.

In Paris, Bhupathi reiterated his desire to play with Bopanna: “That’s the ideal situation because we’ve been playing well together for the last five months and we are gelling,” he told me.

I asked Paes how he would address the situation, and he said he would keep his focus on court.

“Just win my matches, that’s all I can control,” Paes said. “One of the reasons why I stopped playing team sports was because of the politics. My skills and performance will speak for themselves. Karma will play itself out. I’ve already won a medal. Just going to my sixth Olympics is more than any Asian has ever done and maybe only handful of people in history anywhere has done. Winning, losing, going or not going, politics is politics and at the end of the day the history books speak of what you do.”

So what if the history books don’t write Paes’ history the way he would like. Will he get in someone’s face, or just go and quietly mediate on it?

“At end of the day I have to rest my head on my pillow,” he said. “I just have to be true to Leander, and that’s a great thing.”

 

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