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Exclusive Interview with Leander Paes: 2012 and the Olympic Dream

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leander_paes1Leander Paes has been the foremost flagbearer for Indian tennis for over two decades now. During these years, the champion has gone through the whole gamut of highs and lows, in singles and doubles, for self and for country in a career fuelled by passion. That zest does not seem to have dimmed one bit as he heads into a scarcely less dazzling twilight of his career, as he turns 39 later this month. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to catch up with the doubles veteran at Roland Garros, in a freewheeling discussion that revolved around his success this season, his goals for the year, the inevitable elephant in the room - the Olympics, while even finding time to take a short trip down memory lane to talk about his first Davis Cup partner.

Success this year & figuring out a new partner

I asked Leander to describe what he felt about the success he has had this year including that phenomenal achievement of completing a career grand slam in men's doubles. Paes was visibly enthused in his response, "The Career Grand Slam in doubles was one of my goals coming into this year. Last year, I didn;t win a slam. But this year, I have already won, I won Miami, I won Chennai, I have been world no.1 for the first 5 and half months, which is amazing. That's what I live for, that's what I work hard for."

Considering the success he had with Stepanek, it was a bit of a surprise for most fans that he wasn't partnering him at the French this year. Leander clarified the situation, "He is playing a tournament in Slovakia second week of the French Open. From November, last year, I knew the French Open I wasn't playing [with Stepanek], that Wimbledon I wasn't playing [with Stepanek], but now I am playing with him at Wimbledon, and I am really looking forward to that."

We branched out at this stage to delve a little deeper into what it is like to adjust to working with a new partner. The experienced Indian has had a multitude of playing partners (Alexander Peya who partnered Leander at the French open this year is Paes' 89th different partner) at various points of time in his career and clearly understands what it takes. "When you are playing with a new partner, we have to figure each other out early. Because, as you progress after playing for the first time, the camaraderie comes in, the team work comes in and understanding on the court comes in."

Goals this season

Paes' thought process could be used as blueprint for some management training sessions around goal setting. The experienced campaigner had it all thought out going into the new year, "In November, when I look at my calendar, I looked at my whole career , Career Grand Slam in doubles, Career Grand Slam in mixed doubles, Olympic Gold in doubles and the World Tour Finals would make it one of the most phenomenal years ever in my career. So, these are the things I am looking out for."

Paes unfortunately lost in the semifinal of the mixed yesterday [partnering Elena Vesnina], but the desire to complete that elusive box set is evident, "I am looking to complete the Career Grand Slam in mixed doubles. I have won the Wimbledon a couple of times, won the Australian Open a couple of times, I have won the US Open, I lost the final here with Navratilova. I have won the doubles here 3 times. Now, I have to finish winning a mixed here. That will be Career Grand Slam in men's doubles and Career Grand Slam in mixed. That will be awesome."

Neither motivation nor fitness will be an issue for Paes. When asked how difficult it would be to play two matches in a day, as he was scheduled to earlier in this tournament, Paes was dismissive, "today I have played 2 matches, and I've gone to the gym to do a full workout. I'll bike for half-an-hour, and then work on my abs, my back, my wrists, my legs. I have to do my regime, because I am ready for the Olympics when it comes, I am ready for Wimbledon when it comes. At Wimbledon we play 5 sets. I am playing with a partner, who I have already won a Grand Slam with. Now we're playing mainly for cream on the top. It's great, really."

The Olympic Dream

London 2012 will be Leander's 6th consecutive Olympics and is an achievement that definitely is a point of pride for him, I'm going to my 6th Olympics, I think that's the most an Indian has ever done. After Randhir [Singh], who is the other one who has done 6 in shooting. Now I have to match him; winning a gold medal. I've already got my singles medal, which is huge. It's the best thing I have ever done in the singles, amazing. Together, a gold medal, in the doubles, will be phenomenal."

To win a doubles gold, one of course needs a partner, and one that you gel with as Paes stated earlier. The most successful Indian doubles team ever has been the duo of Paes & Bhupathi and I asked him whether they would be playing together in London - "I am going to be 7 in the world for the next pretty much right through the year. I think, selection should be done on merit. It should be done fully on merit, on looking at how the person has performed the whole year, how the person has performed for the country. I am in great form; I am playing great tennis. I am happy. I just hope, I get the best partner to give ourselves a chance, you know."

I further prodded him asking whether his position then was that the top 2 ranked doubles players in the country should partner with each other at the Olympics. "I don't know how they are going to look at it. I really don't know what the selectors are seeing. It could be the top 2, it could be the best two, and it could be the team that played together, who knows. There are so many ways of looking at it. All I know is that, as far as I am concerned, I have got to be ready, when the bell rings at the Olympics, to play my best tennis." The reply while non-committal clearly suggests two things, one that Paes sees himself as a definite as a part of the Indian tennis pair at the Olympics and the other would probably be Bhupathi, since they've played together successfully for the country despite their differences and are the best team that that India could field.

Paes does recognise though that despite all the preparation he needs that extra bit of luck, for things to fall into place if they are to win gold, "Even if you get the best partner to play, everything will have to fall into place, karma has to fall into place." When asked whether he was referring to the fact that he ran into a rampaging Federer last time around, he concurred that there was little one could do in that scenario.

A trip down memory lane

Having run into Indian legend from a different era, Ramesh Krishnan during Paes' match, I decided to ask Leander to dig out some memories about the man who was his first Davis Cup teammate. Leander's fondness and respect for the man was forthcoming, "One of the most simple, hard-working and conscientious human beings on the planet. Taught me a lot about tennis, taught me a lot about life, he was one of my close confidants when I was coming up the junior ranks, just turned professional and climbing up the senior ranks ladder. I remember, in Paris we played together in one French Open, I learnt a lot of things from him, a lot of discipline from him. He is one of my best doubles partners ever. One of the smartest and hard-working; Great Guy."

Paes opened up more as we spoke further, "You know, I almost won a doubles Olympic medal with him! My first Olympics. We lost in the quarter-finals against the Croats, Goran Ivanisevic & Prpic. At that time in Olympics, there was a gold, a silver and 2 bronzes. If you have made it to the semis, you were getting [a medal]. And we played in the quarter-final. In the second round, we beat the top seeds. If I had won that medal with him, we would already have won that Olympic [doubles]medal."

No memory of the two would be complete without talking about that famous triumph in 1993 in France on the clay against a French team that included Henri Leconte & Arnaud Boetsch. Paes' comment was short but powerful, "It was great. Those were my best playing days with Ramesh."

Winding down

In conclusion, Leander was clearly in the position one would love to be - Happy and satisfied with your past success, yet sufficiently motivated for more, "If I have to stop today, I have had a great season. Now, it's just about a cherry on the cake and those few things, mixed doubles Career Grand Slam along with the men's doubles Career Grand Slam, Olympics doubles medal along with the singles medal and a world championship. That motivates me every morning."

All of us at TheSportsCampus wish him only the best in his endeavours on the grass, at the Olympics and indeed right through the rest of the season. For a man who has brought Indian tennis much glory, achievement of all his goals would be deserved reward.