Calcutta: Leander Paes was travelling from New York to Florida and, so, was able to return The Telegraph’s call only late (IST) on Monday. That done, the winner of 14 Grand Slams spoke for around half-an-hour, before heading off for a “business meeting.”
The oldest Grand Slam winner among men in the Open era, Leander (40) is expected back in India on Wednesday.
Q Well, how did you celebrate your 14th Grand Slam title?
A My team and Radek Stepanek’s team got together at my favourite Italian restaurant in New York... I won’t reveal the name, for the media will then know where to catch me! The Washington Kastles owner, Mark Ein, was also there.
[Recently, the Washington Kastles, powered by Leander and Martina Hingis, won their third World Team title on the trot.]
Have you taken a fresh guard at 40?
Be it 39 or 40 or 41... All, for me, are numbers... More than age, what matters is the motivation... The mental and physical bit which goes into training... Frankly, I’m fitter today than I was 10 years ago, when I had that illness.
How would you describe your state of mind?
(Calmly) I’m in good space... I’m contended... Today, I play for myself... Play for the enjoyment.
The period that you’ve been on the circuit spans three decades... It has been an incredible journey. What keeps driving you?
I’m still a student of the game... I keep learning... I still want to try and keep excelling... My backhand has improved, my return of serve has got better, I have better balance.
What have the years taught you?
That a good work ethic counts.
Just what do you understand by excellence?
It’s a good question... Some are driven by rankings, some by their ability to improve their shot-making... For me, excellence is being consistent on a daily basis... Be it on court or off it, while training... Like doing 5,000 skips every single day. With age, the legs slow down... Fortunately, thanks to my parents (Vece, Jennifer), I’ve been blessed with powerful legs, but I still need to put in the hard yards... I need to have a quick reaction time.
What remains to be achieved?
Nothing else, perhaps... I’ve pretty much achieved everything... Sure, it would be nice to win another Grand Slam... Sure, it would be nice to compete in a seventh Olympics in succession... Actually, more than the 14 Grand Slam titles, the real thing is that I’ve made 30 Grand Slam finals... I left home (Calcutta) as a 12-year-old... As a teenager, I had to sacrifice a lot, but it has been worth it. By winning, I honour those who’ve stood like a rock behind me... My father, coach Rick Leach, physical trainer David Herman, yoga master Sanjay Singh. I’ve got a great team.
For all your achievements, is there still a regret? Either the break-up with Mahesh Bhupathi or the row before the 2012 Olympics?
You’ve mentioned two things... Look, there will always be ups and downs in life and you can’t please everybody all the time... Yes, there have been sour happenings, but I’ve continued to push the bar higher. Fact is I play to win, not just to compete.
What can youngsters learn the most from you?
I’ve treated every challenge as an opportunity... That could be something for them to learn... You’ve got to keep life real, learn from the ups and downs... You’ll make good decisions and bad, but at the end of the day, the good decisions should outweigh the bad... I’ve been true to myself and I’d advise every youngster to keep this in mind... I guess I’ve touched many lives by the way I’ve played... Before leaving New York, I was at a cafe and, within minutes, people started to congratulate me... Americans, Indian Americans... I was overwhelmed somewhat, for it’s quite a distance between Calcutta and New York.
Before Sunday, your last Grand Slam win had been back in early 2012, in the Australian Open. Was the long wait frustrating?
But there still were highs... I played in my sixth Olympics on the trot, was ranked high for the better part of the year... I accept that 2013 has been a hard year... Radek had surgery in January, I had issues... Till Sunday, it had been a year of adversity... But my team stood by me... A lot of people could stand by you when the going is thick. The ones who really care are those who stand by you when the going is thin.
Martina Navratilova remains a huge inspiration...
Absolutely... I met Martina as I was heading to the locker room... We hugged and both of us were in tears... I recalled what she’d told me at Wimbledon, after Radek and I lost in the semi-final.
What did Martina say then?
That the tough times build character... That it’s essential to find solutions... That life cannot but be a roller coaster... Basically, that I should keep at it. I have.
You underplayed your own role in Sunday’s success... Thanking Radek profusely and dedicating the win to Leach’s father...
But that’s me. It’s important to have a good team.
Given the praise you showered on Radek and the Czech Republic, an honorary citizenship could soon be on the way. Your thoughts?
(Laughs) You’re being humorous.
Of late, you’ve practised with Novak Djokovic, the world No.1 in singles. Has there been something to learn?
I have... Novak’s such a good mover on court. I’ve been learning by talking to him and, obviously, by watching him play... We’ve talked about balance and the transfer of body weight... That Novak has taught me a trick while returning serve is a bonus.
What’s special about the No.1?
Novak is the quintessential professional and, believe me, he has an amazing brain.
The final one... Are we close to the end of Roger Federer’s phenomenal innings on court?
Roger’s probably the greatest... You only have to look at his record (17 Grand Slam titles)... I’d love to see him win another Grand Slam, but I get the impression that the passion and desire have got a little diluted. To win again, Roger will have to work really hard. In singles, especially, you’ve got to put in a lot.