It’s 2 am and Leander Paes is ending his day with a set of ab exercises. I am lounging in the chair sipping away at my drink. It’s a scene that’s played out between us innumerable times over the last two decades. The glass in my hand now holds chai—Leander’s mini bar is no longer taking a hit. The music coming off his speaker has mellowed from the hip hop of earlier years to easy jazz. The only thing which hasn’t changed is the intensity of our conversations. What has certainly changed is that from a sports journalist, I am now Leander’s ball-boy, bag picker and, as I laughingly accept, groupie number 1. He on his part, though, gives me the privilege of being accredited as his coach.
2020 is the year for Leander’s #onelastroar as he looks to wind down from over three decades of competitive tennis. Or so he says.
“If I can keep reproducing this kind of form, maybe I should listen to my dad and not retire?” a bubbly Leander gushes after he and partner Matthew Ebden oust the second seeds at the Tata Open in Pune last Wednesday. The very next day, they are bested easily by the Indian pair of Purav Raja and Ramkumar Ramanathan. Leander was not at 100% going into the game—despite the support staff frowning at his extended business meetings before the match, Leander had persisted.
“Have to focus on earning a living beyond tennis, now. You guys will have me playing till I am 50 if I let you,” he tells us later.
Paes is set to play about eight tournaments on the Tour this year as he shifts his focus from being on court to building the next generation of athletes, with sports education and the Leander Paes Tennis Academy being his primary interests. (Disclosure: I am part of the team for these projects).
With the Davis Cup tie against Croatia in the offing and a potential record-equalling eighth Olympics at Tokyo, Leander will look to tweak his tournament schedule and training as the year unfolds and enhance it where required.
Routine is king
Travelling with an athlete of Leander’s stature is an education. A creature of routine with persistent focus on ‘deliberate perfect practice’, Leander is a brilliant case study for longevity and excellence in a global sport that makes excruciating demands on the body. The synthetic court surfaces, which grab the sole and hence increase the load on the lower limb joints, have made longevity precarious.
“It’s about doing the same things over and over again till you reach an autonomous stage of execution. It’s about mapping the brain with the patterns that unfold on court till the time the body responds without conscious thought,” Leander says.
To achieve that, the body and mind must be made comfortable; the anxiety of competition must be lulled by the comfort of routine and ritual.
“What to do during the 20 seconds between points, what to do during the changeover…what is the ritual when the momentum is with you, how the same changes when it isn’t…these are just small components of the whole that makes a tennis player.” Though, not all things are made. Leander’s great footwork does come from the fast twitch muscle fibre his genes gave him.
Leander’s speed comes from his mother Jennifer, who as the captain of the Indian basketball team in 1983, was like a hornet on court. But, like everything else in life, what appears to be apparent needn’t necessarily be real.
“Most people don’t realise that moving fast is not just about the feet. It’s the ability to read where the opponent is likely to hit. When the player looks down for a fraction of a second before hitting the ball, that’s when I have already moved. That anticipation comes from years of experience and has been my greatest asset. It’s not guesswork. It’s about interpreting subtle clues like racquet position, foot placement and possible angles from that particular spot on court,” Leander says.
“That footwork of his is the product of countless hours spent doing drills, shadow practice and jumping rope. Talent is just an add-on, it’s hard work that forms the bulwark of a sporting career,” says Dr Vece Paes, Leander’s father, who won a bronze at the 1972 Olympics playing for India’s hockey team. The footwork drills continue even now. The secret to that feline movement? It’s dance. Leander’s always dancing in the room to the latest music that’s humming through his head and the shadow work, which most juniors are loath to embrace, continues even now.
The key to excellence, according to Leander, is routine. It’s about putting the mind in a comfort zone. Leander puts his racquet bag next to him and asks me to switch off the light. “Now, tell me what you want from my bag.” Micropore tape, I venture. There’s a slight rustle and he asks me to switch on the light. The tape’s in his hand.
“During a match, there is zero anxiety in my head when I am looking for something in my bag. The body responds best to stress when you eliminate all the small irritants which add up to become distractions.”
In multiple hotels rooms across the world, I have seen Leander’s bags always lying in the same spot, the clothes for the day always stacked in one order, the shaving cream and toothbrush always placed at exactly the same spot in every loo.
Music is the soul of life
Leander’s days are filled with music streaming from his top-notch sound system which he lugs around as “quality dictates the rhythm of my life”. The room hums to spiritual chimes in the morning, shifts to Latino and hip-hop beats as the day progresses and may well end up with the latest from Bollywood, or Kishore Kumar, or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or veer towards 70s rock. With me around he has even started to love Punjabi Sufi stuff.
While it may not be apparent to his fans, Leander is a spiritual person. He feels energy and vibes matter a lot to him. He is extremely quick to pick up the mood of others and is one of the warmest human beings you’ll meet if he feels that you need his help. For all his guttural animal-like court prowling, Leander is a philosophical man off it.
Glamour, but at a price
Travelling with Leander may sound glamourous, and it is, but when you cavort with stars you must understand that no matter who you are, you dance to the strum of the main man. It can be exasperating at times..
Support staff must ensure that the athlete is primed to perform at his best. Now, I am no physio, but Leander likes his thoracic region manipulated before a match. So, he’s been asking me to climb on top of him and use my body weight to ‘çrack’ the spine before the match. It’s a nightmare for me as I am wary that I may cause harm but there’s no escaping the needs of the athlete.
But then, there are perks. Each restaurant we go to in India, the chef will make something special for Leander. He insists on paying but mysteriously many a bill becomes miniscule. I once made the mistake of thinking that what he paid was the actual price for a fancy meal we had. I took a friend to the same place later without the star along and the bill nearly took half of my reporter’s salary at the time!
Discipline is key
Another key ingredient that allows for longevity is lifestyle. Doc Paes often celebrates a win with the team with beer; Leander will sit with everyone, but over two decades of knowing him, I’ve never seen him drink alcohol. If someone lights up, Leander is the first person to step out of the room. He has a sweet tooth but the amount of sugar he ingests is miniscule. During match days, pre-hydration is the norm and you won’t find Leander without his sipper with doses of various supplements. I wanted to write about all the stuff that goes into his hydration, but was threatened with castration.
Watching Leander eat is a lesson for any junior. The plate is heaped multiple times and he has simple sage advice for any aspiring player out there: “Fussy eater? Finicky about taste? Don’t bother playing tennis. One can never control taste or type of food as we travel from country to country on a weekly basis. The sport demands huge amounts of energy which only complex carbs can supply over the course of a long match. Without precise nutrition the body just can’t recover well enough to perform the next day. If a player can’t eat, it’s better if he/she sticks to playing club tennis, don’t fantasise about the professional tour.”
It’s not another racquet
The racquets that Leander plays with may have the same facade as the ones stocked in sports stores, but inside they are a world apart. At his peak, Leander was playing with a frame that weighed 368 gm. Regular racquets off the shelf are in the range of 270 to 315 gm. He uses natural gut across and synthetic in the straights. There is nothing like gut for ‘feel’.
Twenty metres of gut costs $25 and is only good for two frames. He uses a fresh overgrip for each practice and match and those tennis shoes are worn out in two-three matches at the most.
“Equipment can make or break a player. I am extremely particular about what I use.” Even his grip is made according to a special mould which mimics his hand shape perfectly. Lead is injected into the frame at strategic points to give him the balance and heft he prefers. His racquets have been customized by the same man since 1991. It was former world number 1 Ivan Lendl who introduced Leander to the maestro, an American man Leander does not want named, but who also customises the frames of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Leander was not always the unflappable calm player that we now see. He was prone to outbursts on court. “It was renowned psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr who calmed him down and taught him the rituals which keep him cool under pressure,” says Doc Paes. Breath control is the key.
“All of Dr Loehr’s athletes use the breath to calm themselves or to fire up before exploding. It’s simple enough but the body only learns through repetition and replication under pressure. After a couple of years, it starts becoming automatic,” adds Leander.
The common touch
One of Leander’s greatest assets is the common touch. From the doorman to the driver to the hotel GM, Leander has a kind word for most people. They love him at the Australian Open, they still give him a locker room with the stars at Wimbledon and the public at large adores him, for Leander is never short with anyone. Inside he may be seething after a loss, but he won’t ever refuse a child an autograph. “It’s a responsibility that one has as a public figure. A lot of young people look up to me. How would they feel if I threw starry airs? It’s important to reciprocate the love of the fans, after all they make us what we are as far as image goes.”
Despite his exit in the second round at Pune, Leander is mobbed every time he goes to the stadium. With #onelastroar gaining traction on social media, posters pop up around the stands even though he is no longer competing. Each practice session sees hordes of fans thronging for that selfie, clamouring for that autograph. Leander doesn’t really need to play Challenger level events anymore as the race for ranking points has finally stilled for him after a long time. He would rather just savour his wildcards at the bigger sporting arenas and train hard for an explosive end with a giant roar.
Another roar in India
However, the adulation at Pune gets him thinking again. He decides that Bengaluru would give his home fans another chance to see his magic. Leander is also an emotional man who connects with people and will go out of his way to repay a kindness. The Bengaluru tournament director’s offer of appearance money is brushed aside and Leander starts thinking aloud about the kind of tennis that the higher altitude of Bengaluru would demand.
The courts at the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association have a new layer of paint but nothing can really slow the high-bounding, darting ball that’s the trademark of the place. My erstwhile national junior tennis skills have hardly resurfaced after a hiatus of three decades and the quicker ball at Bangalore soon has me mistiming strokes during the practice session. Leander grins away at my discomfort even as his timing stays immaculate. “That’s the difference between the pros and regular players. We either adapt quick or we perish. That’s why I feel that young players should be groomed in such a way that they learn to adapt quickly to changed conditions. It’s all about early exposure even as it’s all about doing your mental rituals to summon the comfort level of playing at home.”
Locker room bonding
Inside the locker rooms of the ATP tour, the atmosphere is largely respectful and cordial. I may never be able to get over the fact that Alexander Zverev actually held the door open for me during the Shenzhen Open two years ago as I had been introduced to him as Leander’s coach. Even top players will acknowledge support staff with a nod. All players are essentially Jekyl & Hyde incarnates depending upon the outcome of the match. Leander invariably goes into severe introspection mode (his loss at the 2017 Australian Open had me forfeiting a ticket to Novak Djokovic’s box, much to my angst) and needs someone to bounce his thoughts off. A win results in glorious, smiling rendition of the key points of the match and any fans in the vicinity hit pay dirt as selfies, autographs and conversation flow from the star. However, no matter what the outcome, about two hours later, most professionals are back to normal and planning for the next outing.
They may be fierce rivals on the court but the locker room is a far easier space where players stay out of each other’s way.
Pre-match preparation is all about dynamic warm-ups while long showers and massages are the norm to recover post the exertion. “Long after the fans have left, the courts are still and just a couple of us players are left recovering in the physio room or working out in the gym… these are the moments that I really enjoy. It’s the calm after the storm and it feels especially good if one has won.”
Coda: the music does stop
At Bengaluru, Paes and Ebden script a credible super tiebreak to beat the winning combo from last week’s Tata Open and are in the semis. Talk of carrying on erupts again. “I know what you are thinking, so don’t say it. But I do feel if we get the team together and build up a solid campaign, my #onelastroar can be real loud,” Leander begins to flirt with playing on. “But then, won’t it be better to leave on a high rather than face the ignominy of being beaten by yesterday’s kids?” The furious back and forth as he thinks aloud throughout these two weeks has become a common refrain. Every time he starts, we both end up grinning knowing that this music has to stop. After all, even as the mind is sharper and the game plans crystal, the feline movement of old is that much more constrained, the blinding reflexes that much slower. But try saying that to him! Belief in self is the cornerstone of champions and Leander is still not ready to accept that this year is his coda.
But then time and the pride wait for none.
It’s the day of the final. Whatever the result, this will be his last match in India.
As Leander sits in the car, his phone beeps. “Win or lose, it’s your day Leander. It’s been a glorious journey and we are proud of you – Vece & Julie,” reads his father’s text. At warm-up, Leander and Ebden discuss just how they are going to counter the pair that had beaten them so convincingly just last week. The strategizing was for naught; Raja and Ramanathan registered a facile 0-6, 3-6 win in under an hour.
Leander has been listening to Roop Kumar Rathod’s songs during this event. As strains of ‘maulla mere maulla…’ chime from his phone, he heads for a massage, and then for a quick shower. Yelps and assorted noises inform me that the water was cold. When he comes out, he ties his laces tight (always the left one first), puts on his lip balm (always carries one in his pocket) and combs back his hair. As he steps out, the crowd roars and Vande Mataram explodes over the PA system. Leander gets misty eyed.
As he walks into the sunset, he ambles easy knowing the furrow he has forged in this nation’s sporting history runs wide and deep.
The writer is a former National Sports Editor of Hindustan Times
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