The many moods of Leander
When we met Leander Paes four years back, he had told us: “For me, I will know when my time is done. I’ll know when I’m done”. And, though the 47-year-old announced ‘One Last Roar’ in 2019, a part of us wanted to believe that the swansong will be deferred. Back in his hometown after 10 months to launch Motovolt e-cycles, Leander was a picture of calm and good vibes, like always. And, that mind seemed to be made up to explore newer horizons. In a candid chat, Leander told t2 why he is ready for his “second innings”.
You are back in Calcutta after how long?
February. It was my mother’s birthday. I am here because I believe in this product. It is a phenomenal product, designed in India, assembled in Calcutta, a world-class product, clean, smart and motorised, for the community. Four different bikes, 30 different accessories, that big black bike can carry 200kg, the women’s bike is easy to get in and out. My experience was that my riding skills need some brushing up (laughs), but I think when I look at this product, it is a world-class product. It is environment friendly and cost effective.
Do you have any cycling memories from your growing up years in Calcutta?
From Park Street, Queens Mansion to La Martiniere (for Boys), multiple times a day. In the morning going to school and then from La Martiniere to (Calcutta) South Club, then back to Queens Mansion. I was always on a cycle. Calcutta’s such a small place and back then there were no flyovers. The traffic was such that you could weave through the traffic. I’d have my tennis racquet bag or my school bag on the carrier.
Even now, I ride a bike every single day to keep my legs strong and my lungs going. It is an actual race bike, which is on a stand. I target about 30-40km. The seat has an unbelievable cushion because if you are doing 40-50km, then you need lots of cushion. You wear special pants also with cushions on. I got it customised in Singapore.
Plus, in this pandemic there was no other fitness (options). I have a gym at home. I was using that.
What are the joys of cycling?
You’ve got the wind in your hair and you are free as a bird, weaving through traffic. You don’t have to worry about traffic. You got to wear a helmet and be careful because traffic is fast in Bombay and Delhi. There are health benefits of riding a bike. You burn calories and then biking becomes a community sport. In Delhi, there is a group of 350 bikers, every two days they are doing 60km, 100km... come back and have breakfast. I feel the biking community has grown, just like the gymming community.
How have these 10 months been for you?
It’s been a bit crazy, no? Not just for me. It’s been a little bittersweet. Bitter because I have lost 34 close family friends to Covid, a lot in Calcutta. I haven’t played a tennis match since March 7 when I was playing Davis Cup in Zagreb... but sweet on the other side because I spend so much quality time with my father (Vece Paes), daughter (Aiyana, 14). Baba was with me right through. In 30 years, I was able to spend this much quality time with him for the first time. We had every meal together, discussing ideas, looking at what’s post-tennis.
Baba being my biggest inspiration, my idol for me, I was able to incorporate his philosophies through my tennis and through my last 30 years, but right now, it is a pivotal time. Right now, I am finishing my career of tennis, in the next 12 months, but then there is such a big life beyond it. The audience that I have is 745 million kids who are under the age of 26. I feel even if I can make a difference to one child’s life or if one kid has a better opportunity because of me, I think it is a job well done. I have realised through the pandemic that like-minded people must come together to make this world a better place and to motivate the youth to be their champion, not just in tennis or sport, but in life. There is so much talent out there in the rural areas and there is so much young Indian talent going abroad, I think it is important to bring that talent back to India to make India greater than it is.
Do you think we are ready? Do we have the infrastructure?
Even before I won Wimbledon, people said ‘you can’t do it’. Even before I won my Olympic medal (in Atlanta, 1996), people said ‘India-i hobe na’. In Calcutta itself when I was playing gully cricket and football, no one ever said I could do what I have done. I have a little heart issue... 100 doctors told me I could never become an athlete. They even thought that my father was irresponsible as a doctor in putting me into such vigorous training and sport. I have always believed that if you want to achieve something and you have the hard work and passion, nothing will stop you.
Yours has been a personal journey, hailing from a middle-class background. How many people can do it like you have done it?!
Today we can sit back and have homes around the world, have fancy cars and watches and eat dinner at fancy restaurants, but when I started, yes, I started middle class and I feel that it is the beauty of India. We have one of the largest middle-class democracies on the planet and that is also where our strength is. Indians are very cerebral, intellectual.
I feel growing up middle-class in Calcutta is also what gives me my passion of longevity. Today when I was coming here, seeing that playground and that field (at La Martiniere) which are responsible for a lot of these scars because I was diving and playing football as a goalkeeper or taking a catch in cricket or swimming in the pool, that passion of Calcutta is what has kept me going. Playing in the Maidan or Salt Lake stadium or Eden Gardens stadium with baba, when he was playing hockey.... I think the Maidan life of Calcutta also gave me that passion.
I think it’s the people of Bengal who are not just rich in culture, heritage and intellect, but I think we are very rich as a community because we are there for each other. Barring religion and caste, Calcutta is a very tight-knit community. As brand Leander, I have been blessed to bring everybody together. Mother Teresa is my godmother, Buddhism is a way of life that I practise. For me, I am a complete nationalist. I believe in a community coming together and in that the richness that we have in India, is something that I celebrate. I bring people together. That’s the one god-given gift that I have, whether it’s through my tennis or my speech or my passion for people.
What are the conversations with kids like?
My gosh. The conversations are huge and varied, but the most important lesson that I try to impart is to have the courage to dream big and then have the passion to live that dream. It’s one thing to be scared not to dream, but as much as most of us dream big, do we have the passion to continue because you are going to have some tough days but you got to get up and go again. Growing up middle-class, Park Street, Ballygunge, I have never been scared to fall. I will get up and go again. I think that a champion quality is also a person who never gives up and can continue raising the bar.
Who taught you this?
At home, my parents, my teachers, friends, culture. I grew up at a time when sports didn’t have infrastructure. Gyms were not a thing. Nowadays, gymming has become something new. I grew up at a time when whey protein in diet wasn’t a known thing. People were still figuring out whether to eat the yolk of the egg or the white portion... can you get enough protein from vegetarian food? Diet wasn’t known back then, but I was lucky to be born into a family where both ma and baba were both professional athletes and their knowledge was rich in the field of health, medicine, sport and making champions. Ma is 70 now and baba 75. They have played their sport for 50-55 years. For me, I am 47 and I have been playing my sport for 30 years... 36 years travelling out of home and doing this. You are looking at 80-90 years of knowledge combined, two generations of knowledge combined that you impart to the communities.
Your dad was playing football till about five years back...
He doesn’t play as much but he still does a lot of Tai Chi, fitness, gymwork. From home he looks after the ISL medical part... 25 doctors, 15 hospitals, 100 medical personnel. Crazy, no? If the pandemic wasn’t there and it would be safe for him to travel, he would be in the stadiums. Last year he travelled around four-and-a-half months.
In India where there is a saying that ‘boys don’t cry’, you have always expressed it. How have you kept your emotions under control though, not letting it overpower what you must do?
Baba used to tell me, ‘you shouldn’t cry’, ‘you should be tough’, ‘you shouldn’t show emotions’. I think there is a certain amount of strength in showing your vulnerability but yet riding past it. I think there is a certain strength in being passionate and emotional. We are human beings and the one thing that differentiates us is that we can connect with people and emote. The loyalty that animals have is great in their unconditional bond, but I think in the modern world we live in, it’s becoming a lonely world and it is very important that this god-given skill that I have to connect with people, show emotions, not feel scared of crying... a little cut, bruise, tear... it’s okay. I think wearing your heart on your sleeve is also one way to do it.
I have a crazy amount of energy and passion for things. If I believe in something, nothing will stop me. That’s the brand of Leander. I have put the country on my sleeve, the flag on my heart and we have conquered the world. That’s why we have the Davis Cup world record today, the Olympic world record. My mentor Naresh Kumar, my first Davis Cup captain, also from Calcutta, Middleton Row, encouraged that passion. He has been a guiding light to me my whole life. Aunty Sunita (Naresh Kumar’s wife)... again a guiding light, part of the family.
When you build an environment around a human being, that environment is responsible for who that person becomes. A lot of our young kids are travelling far and wide, to America, England, Europe, Australia, Singapore to further their education. I think it is important for us to bring that Indianness and that wealth of education that these youngsters have travelled abroad to get, back to India.
In each family you speak of certain values. Within communities there are families which speak of values. It is not about being Marwari, Catholic or Christian... it is about what you stand for as a human being.
But have you ever struggled with your heart and your head?
There is a bit of a tussle. (Laughs) Constant debate and learning. Sometimes the mind wins and sometimes the heart wins. For me, the heart will win more than the mind. I think my mind is only to keep the discipline going.
Who do you go to when you need guidance?
I have got a few pillars. I let professionals look after their field. So, if it is medical, it is baba. If it is fitness, then it is a fitness coach. But there are few people I go to just for me, who know Leander since I was a kid. The reason I have continued for 30 years is because not only do I invest in people for business but also show reverence to people who have been there for me. Being surrounded by good people also keeps you grounded and also helps you grow because we all grow together. It’s more fun that way.
Someone asked me the other day at a webinar what has been more important, the journey or the destination. I was a bit stumped because I have always believed in the journey, but how do you keep explaining to 1,600 people to keep going through this journey of pandemic because the destination will be somewhere. Because of my quick La Martiniere thinking, I said it’s the company, the company of people that you have. That makes it worthwhile.
Have you processed your retirement?
No. Have I made peace with that? I have always been at peace. In 2003, I almost lost my tennis and struggled for my life with (neurocysticercosis). I came out 128 pounds heavier and I didn’t think I would play again. I made it back. I have had enough injuries, came back. At the end of every year when I am re-evaluating my career, I have tried to see why am I playing one more year. After you win 10 Grand Slams, you have won every Grand Slam in the book. I feel now there is so much to do away from tennis. There are 745 million kids under the age of 25. That is a humongous audience.
But, have you ever thought about what life would be without tennis?
I have never been a talented tennis player. The average height of a tennis player in the ’80s was 6’1”. The average height of a tennis player in the 2000 was 6’3”. The average height of a tennis player today is 6’6”. I am 5’10” on a good day. I have a single-handed backhand. Any ball above the shoulder for Roger Federer, when Rafa Nadal hits that topspin forehand which bounces and goes high up to the backhand, the single-handed backhand has no power above the shoulder. You have to hit slice. That’s Roger Federer. I am talking me. Technique of tennis is not something I grew up with.
You put me on a football field, I am 100 times more talented in football than tennis. I am a raw athlete. Tennis is not the only thing I do. I was brought up to be a footballer, an athlete. Tennis was just a choice. So, tennis has never been the only thing in my life. It was just the vehicle I chose. So now, if the vehicle is fitness, that will replace tennis.... There are so many ways that you can better the community and entertain people.
Also, tennis has taken 30 years of my life. I think in every human being’s life there are certain passages and stages. For 30 years, tennis has been what I eat, breath, sleep, drink, think... sab kuch. Only then can you win Grand Slams and get to the history books because this is such a global sport. I was doing a webinar with the International Tennis Federation. There are 87.6 million tennis players that are registered on the planet. And, by 2030, the aim is to get 130 million registered tennis players on the planet.
You have never spoken like this. ‘Keep going’ has been your mantra...
There are two words that come to my mind when you say 2020. Introspection. Reinvention. The reinvention of Leander is the pivot. The reinvention of my brand is a pivot. From that single-minded blinkers-on focus on winning Grand Slams and putting India on the history books of the sport and Olympics is now to pivot out of it. How many other Olympic champions can we make? How many other Indians can we give an opportunity to be champions?
The biggest joy of my life from 47 to say 57, may be 67, is to be the vehicle for a community around the world, especially in India for the youth to become champions in their field. Why? Because the same middle-class boy from Park Street and Ballygunge, if I can do it, anybody can. It’s just the passion, hard work, the belief and choosing the right people, because if you don’t have those ingredients, it is not going to happen. How to do it, is the magic. That goes from generation to generation and people like us should show that in the way we lead our lives.
This is also a great time because your daughter is growing up, a teenager now...
(Smiles) Second innings. Fantastic. I play tennis with her every day when I am in Bombay. She is cool and a good athlete. She is more like my father, very strong-headed. She knows what she wants and being a young Indian woman is lovely because through her journey of life, I learned a lot and she also knows that baba is always there to support her. The relationship I share with Aiyana is really phenomenal. She has been one of my greatest inspirations. I tried many years to win the US Open seniors. I won US Open junior singles in September 1991. The year she was born, 2006, I won my first US Open seniors. And, from then on, I have won five, I think. It’s not about winning or losing, but the bond.
The greatest joy in my life is to have a child. I am a single man and have always been... never been married. I had a kid because the doctors in 2003 told me that I wouldn’t run again, grow hair again or have kids. So, I did. But, in all of that, Aiyana has been a great blessing. Now, I feel like I crave to have more children. There will be a time and a place. As tennis slows down and I get into my business, I will also find the time to nurture some children. How, I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure that out.
We all know about your iconic feats, but what would you say has made you the man you are today?
May 12, 1986. I left Calcutta to embark on a journey that was the most uncertain journey in my life, no guarantees at all. And that is the tough thing about sport. If you have a good college degree on your resume, you know you are guaranteed of a solid set salary. I was not talented at tennis. I was 12 and I went to Madras and went to the best tennis academy in Asia and for five years, I just worked. 4.30am wake-up calls, 12-hour days of fitness, training and meditation and mental toughness, gym, weights, log running, practice, technique and in 1990 I won Junior Wimbledon and was Number One in the juniors in singles and then I said okay, maybe I can have a career in this, but those five years made me the man I am.
I think it is important now for people like me to show that in sport, you can also have the guarantee of a good education with scholarships. Tennis is the only sport that has equal prize money for men and women and equal scholarships in universities.