For me, age is just a number: Leander Paes

Twenty-two years on the professional circuit. Seven Grand Slams in men's doubles, six mixed doubles Grand Slams, one Olympic medal. These are the numbers that define Leander Paes. But there are still some things about him you can't quantify in numbers: his child-like enthusiasm, his passion for the game and his cat-like reflexes on the tennis court (Andre Agassi, in his autobiography 'Open', calls Paes a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy with the tour's quickest hands.)

On his 40th birthday, he talks to MiD DAY about Leander Paes the tennis legend, the actor and the doting father.

Leander Paes strikes a pose at Sofitel Hotel, Bandra Kurla Complex. Pic/Sameer Markande 

How do you plan to celebrate your 40th birthday?
For me, age is just a number. As much as we are all celebrating my birthday, I actually look in life to celebrate my whole team who have to sacrifice their lives to be with me and support me: whether it's my tennis coach Rick Leach, my fitness trainer Dave Herman, who has been with me for 22 years, my yoga master, confidante and masseur Sanjay Singh, who's been with me for 23 years, my PR agent Geetika or my dad who's been with me my entire life as my doctor and mentor.

Run us through the last year?
At this moment of the year, if you ask me, it's just been a tight year. It's almost been like a new beginning.
I think in life you just have to be able to roll with the punches. When things are going really well, push even harder, achieve more. But when things are not going well, you tighten in, you consolidate, you make it a very solid year. When I'm on the court, if I'm playing really well, I know I can try all the shots because I know I've got great timing today. But if things are not great, I still got to make sure that my solidity is still good enough to win championships and this year's one of those years. Last year was such an excellent year, this year's a hard year. So, this year, I just got to consolidate, meaning finishing in the Top 10.

At 40, has retirement ever crossed your mind?
Sure. I mean I don't think you guys (journalists) let me live without the thought of it (laughs). Lot of fans have asked me this. At the end of the day, I think I've been very lucky as what I've already achieved helps me transcend retirement thoughts, or transcends how many more trophies you want to win, or how many more dollars you want to earn or how much more adulation you need from fans. Right now I'm playing because I'm very passionate about the sport, that same passion that I had to win trophies as a kid is still burning inside me.

I'm especially playing now to teach Aiyana (daughter) that if you're doing something and it's been a hard year, to still persevere to be the best you can be.
Aiyana has been my greatest source of inspiration, I want to be able to be the dad for her that my dad was for me. I want to help her achieve her own excellence or be the best she can be as a human being. That is important to me.

Your opinion on the new generation of Indian players?
I'm a bit concerned about the depth of tennis in India. As past history goes, we've always produced a great player every once in five or seven years. At this moment in time, I'm concerned about the quality of depth of Indian tennis.

I've been through probably six generations of players, in those 20-odd years, I've seen the game evolve. I've seen the facilities improve, the opportunities for athletes have improved, the corporate dollar has improved, the infrastructure for sports fitness and diet has improved.

But when you say depth, I'm looking at 10-15 players. You feel like if you have 10-15 players, Indian tennis is in good healthy hands. You're pushing each other, I mean I'm 40 years old and I'm still in contention. The depth can get a lot better, so that you can push each other competitively like the Spaniards, Russians and Serbians do.

What are some of the changes you've noticed in the Indian set-up in the 20-odd years that you have been around?
There have been lots of positives for Indian tennis. The amount of international playing surfaces in the country have increased, the amount of international events that have come in have been fabulous.

You look at the way Sania's (Mirza) come through as a female athlete, that's fabulous. You look at how many Grand Slams we've won since my first Slam in 1990 (on the Junior circuit), Indian tennis has improved so much.

Will you participate in the International Tennis Premier League (ITPL)?
I haven't been approached yet to participate, but I hope it takes off.

Your views on the Indian Tennis Players Association (ITPA) where you are a vice-president?
It (his appointment) came as a surprise. It's a good thing that the players come together and come to a consensus and try and better the game.

Your first movie Rajdhani Express released earlier this year. Would you say acting is more difficult as compared to playing tennis?
It's tough to compare professions, because both have their own upside as well as trials. After my experience with Rajdhani Express, I have even more respect for the lifestyles of actors. Everyone sees the glamour, everyone sees the magazines, the papers, the hoardings on the streets, but not many people get to see the hours they put in. The 16 or 18-hour days, going to remote areas where sometimes it is freezing cold, sometimes it is crazy hot.
With tennis, it's about fancy stadiums and beautiful arenas like Wimbledon or Roland Garros or Arthur Ashes stadium.

Sometimes when you're making movies you could be in the most remote part of Nepal or Punjab. Each profession has its own nuances and I've been very blessed in my life to experience both, where in one I've already achieved excellence and in the other one I'm embarking on trying to achieve that excellence.

So, you would be open to doing another movie?
I've got scripts on my plate to do. Besides that, I've just finished a graphic novel. But at this moment in time, I'm solely focused on my tennis right now. That is my bread and butter. I'm almost at the end of my career, I'm in the last couple of years. Whether I'll play only for six months and retire or whether I'll be able to continue playing for the next year and make it to the next Olympics is determined by every day. My rankings change every Monday. So, it's a very cut-throat, hard profession. If I don't turn around this year and start playing well, come September, where my ranking's already gone from No 3 in the world in January to No 15, if I don't consolidate for the rest of the year, I might be out of a job.

Leander’s best, worst, regrets

Best moment:
Standing on the podium at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with the flag going up and the medal around my neck in singles.

Worst moment:
Sitting in MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2003 not knowing how long I had to live (when Paes was suspected to have a brain tumour)

Not continuing with my singles longer.

One match you wish you could replay:
Atlanta semi-finals: I had two set points against Agassi (in the first set), chipped and charged at 40-15 of a first serve that bounced off a line. I hit the baseline, he rifled a backhand. If I could do it again, I would have let that ball go and let him win that point because when I tried to fend it off, my wrist was in a weak spot and I snapped a tendon from my wrist to my elbow and I was done for the day. Even if I had lost that point, I still had another set point but I wouldn't have injured myself.

Favourite tennis player:
Rod Laver

Favourite tennis tournament:

Favourite opponent:
Andre Agassi

One movie role you would want to play:
There are too many; in Bollywood: Mr Bachchan's role in Sholay, Mr Bachchan's role in Amar Akbar Anthony, Aamir Khan's role in Taare Zameen Par;
In Hollywood: Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, I wouldn't fit the bill for that but a great role, Robert Redford in The Natural, or any James Bond role.

Your favourite Bond:
Sean Connery

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