Optimist of all times, tennis staunch Leander Paes never fails to motivate the youth

'I have no problems failing once or a hundred times because on the millionth try, I will succeed'

Saionee Chakraborty Published 01.01.24, 11:24 AM
Leander Paes

Leander Paes

A conversation with Leander Paes is almost guaranteed to drive away pretty much any kind of blues you might be feeling; his great enthusiasm for life is so infectious. t2 caught up with him on a December afternoon, right after the Beckbagan boy became the first Indian elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the player category. The Class of 2024 Induction Ceremony will be held in Newport, R.I. on July 20, 2024. The International Tennis Hall of Fame is a ‘non-profit organisation that preserves and promotes the history of tennis and celebrates its champions’. Excerpts from the chat with the champ.

Many congratulations, Leander! Who was the first person who came to mind when the announcement was made?


From playing gully cricket and football in Park Street to now being inducted into the Hall of Fame is really special. You know, I thought of every single person who’s played a part in my life. I thought of my dad, my mum, my step-mum, Juliana, my daughter, every single tennis coach I have had, my fitness coach I’ve had, my travelling companion Sanjay Singh, thought of every single Davis Cup captain, Naresh Kumar and his family came to mind so strongly, because I wouldn’t be who I am without all these people. I thought of all the fans around the world. You know how I am as a person and how I have these individual relationships with people and how strong my elephant’s memory is (laughs). It’s finally kind of dawned on me now at 50, the body of work that has been achieved, to achieve this accolade. Yes, I got the Arjuna Award back in 1990, which was four decades ago, and achieved the Padma Shri, and Padma Bhushan, where the country has shown love for me over the last four decades, but to now have this global recognition of the International Tennis Hall of Fame is really special because the statistics that are coming out are insane.

Twenty Grand Slam wins, seven Olympics in a row, the most decorated Asian athlete with nine medals... never knew that. Also, I found out recently that Sir Rod Laver and myself are the only two athletes to win Wimbledon in three decades. I also found out that I have also won the French Open in three different decades — 1999 with Mahesh (Bhupathi), 2001 with (Mahesh), 2010 with Lukas Dlouhy, 2016 with Martina Hingis... just insane stats.

Just shows your insatiable spirit...

Yes, and passion and hard work and never give up... and longevity about achieving success. Also, a lot of these have come with hardships, right? I have been hitchhiking rides through Europe, been living in locker rooms in the winter of ‘91 in Germany because I didn’t have money for a hotel room, being mugged in New York City and the scar on my chest reminds me every day how tough the world we live in is. Coming out of a cancer hospital in 2003 and winning more Grand Slams after that and playing more Olympics after that than I did before. Insane stuff.

This accolade and induction inspire me to go and inspire 250 million children in the next 15 years to play sports in our country. This celebration is a celebration for all of India and it’s a celebration for every young kid out there with a passion in their heart and a big dream in their mind that if Leander can do it, main bhi kar sakta hoon.

You’ve always dreamt big, right?

Always. I am a perfectionist and the sort of person that I don’t want to master everything, but the things that I do, I want to be the best that I can be at them. It is a bit tough to run with me sometimes because of how hard I work or the hours that I can put in, but I believe sometimes achieving success is about the amount of pain you can endure. I have no problems failing once or a hundred times because on the millionth try, I will succeed. I will continue to try till I succeed. And, I think sometimes that is how winning is done, right?

What was a 15-year-old Leander’s day like and what is a day in your life right now, like?

A 15 or even a 12-year-old Leander would wake up at 4.30am, put in 10 hours of tennis, another three hours of fitness and mental toughness training and then spend time doing school work and recovery and sleeping early. I used to sleep only four hours when I was 15. After I won the junior Wimbledon at 16 and was number one in the juniors, I got the tremendous belief that maybe I can do this. I had switched to tennis from football which was my main passion.

From the age of 16 when I won my first Grand Slam at Wimbledon and the US Open, to now having won 20 Grand Slams, the lifestyle has been the same. The discipline has been the same. (Even now) I sleep about four hours a night. Now the work that I do in terms of sports, design of infrastructure, inspiring kids and showing them how they can win, is a passion that I have to honour my dad. The 60 years of sports education and sports science knowledge that he has and the 40 years of education that I have, are 100 years of knowledge that I am putting into a portal to share with the world because I believe that if you have a good quality of lifestyle, you can achieve excellence in anything that you do.

What did your father, Dr Vece Paes, tell you after the induction?

For once, he actually turned around and said: ‘Hey, not too bad, kid!’ I was like, did you just shower praise on me?! (Laughs) No, he has always praised me, but he’s always been the first one to reach me when I lost and the last one to come to me when I won.

I am very blessed to have been born into this family of sporting legacy because I wouldn’t be who I am without my two sisters and my parents. They were phenomenal role models and mentors. In our family, we believe in doing things through unconditional love and support and we believe in being there for each other. I haven’t seen my middle sister, Maria, in five years. She is in California, but the unconditional support and love that we give each other is wonderful. I am very blessed to have my two siblings, Jacquie and Maria, because through their support, passion and guidance, one has learnt the nuances of the human spirit, about being a good human being is more important than being a world achiever.

What does your induction mean for Indian tennis?

Having had 192 partners in the game of tennis and creating history through 22 countries, has given me a platform of the whole world as my playground. So now when I go to do work to inspire children all across the world, it makes it a lot easier. When I look at Indian sport, winning my 1990 Wimbledon Juniors inspired a whole generation of kids to play tennis in this country. That’s how a Mahesh Bhupathi came around or a Sania Mirza came around. Winning my Olympic medal in 1996 inspired so many other individual athletes like Chilly Rathore (Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore) to win his medal in shooting (2004), Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang. Even now when Neeraj Chopra turns around and says: ‘I saw a poster of yours in our stadium and thought if you could do it, so could I’, that is a wonderful feeling to inspire people to achieve greatness. But now my passion is to look after the grassroots and the feeder system.

India has put up a hand to host the 2036 Olympics, which is 13 years from now. If we pick up a 10-year-old now and nurture them, in 13 years, they’ll be 23 and they will be aspiring Olympic champions. Having played seven Olympics across the planet, starting from Barcelona in 1992 to winning my Olympic medal in 1996 to carrying the flag in Sydney at the opening ceremony (2000), all the way up to the Beijing Olympics (2008) and London Olympics (2012) and to culminating with my world record at Rio De Janeiro (2016), it would be wonderful to spearhead the campaign to bring the Olympics to India.

Champions always say how it’s important to be ready to make the most of the opportunities that come to you...

Opportunity comes knocking on your door once in your lifetime and you must be ready for that in body, mind and spirit. I have been blessed and lucky in my life that I have learned that art and that magic trick to keep creating opportunities in multiple forms in my life. And, in that I have always prided myself on my homework and on having the best team around me because they are the reason I am who I am. In that, I have always been a team player. I feel you must give your team that well-deserved honour and respect.

What should be done to keep the hunger to win alive in children?

First of all, the simplicity of life is important. In this modern-day era of smart gadgets, social media, instant gratification, all the dangers of AI that are out there, these stresses of Class X-XII board exams, the stresses of inflation and how many human beings lose their jobs... the cost of living has gone up... family, work and health stresses are up.... So, everyone is going through some stress or the other. Through love, positivity and one’s own example if one can bring happiness to people, even for one second, in taking one picture or signing one autograph or genuinely asking someone: ‘Kemon achho?’ and sitting and listening to that answer and inspiring them through a simple smile, maybe can change their life and day. For me, I take that responsibility very dearly.... Don’t ever get fooled that I don’t have my own hardships, but how you deal with them is more important than trying to just accept them and finding solutions to deal with them is more important.

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