MS Dhoni is amazing, Virat Kohli is phenomenal: Leander Paes

Published: Oct 16, 2019, 10:20 IST | mid-day online correspondent |

Leander Paes speaks about Australian Open, Tokyo Games, Martina Hingis and Martina Navratilova, fitness and younger athletes at an event

Leander Paes on his official Instagram
Leander Paes on his official Instagram

Indian tennis veteran Leander Paes was recently speaking after Tennis Australia and Sony Pictures India Private Limited made an announcement that they would extend their broadcast relationship for three-years at the Australian Open 2020 media launch event in Mumbai. Leander Paes was quizzed on quite a few topics and had much to say about them.

On Australian Open

“The first grand slam I ever played in my career was in 1989 and it was the Junior Boys Singles at the Australian Open. As a young boy from Kolkata, born to a Bengali and Goan-Portuguese father, football is my first love. When I gave up football, left the academy in Europe and came back to India, my dad said “what are you going to do” and I said “tennis” and he laughed at me for about six minutes because I really wasn’t a very talented tennis player. The Australian Open in 1989 was my first one, but more importantly, the 1990 Australian Open, getting into the Junior Finals gave me the sense of belief that I could be a world champion. The reason I took up tennis was that my parents had played at the Olympics, the individuality of the sport and I figured that if I worked hard enough even I could also own one of these trophies. In the 1990 Australian Open, when I got the first trophy at the Australian Open still sits in a place of pride in my heart because I wouldn’t be who I am without my parents, what they did for me, the opportunities they gave to me and my two sisters. My first trophy of the Grand Slam still sits with my parents and that’s the Australian Open for you.”

“Over 25 years ago, I won my first Grand Slam in Wimbledon in 1990 in the Junior Singles. Then I wanted to make sure that wasn’t a fluke so I went ahead and played the US Open in 1991 and won that too. But in the last 25 years, I realized that the one title which deluded me in the Men’s’ Doubles was the Australian Open. I got to the finals in 1999, with Mahesh, we lost to Patrick Rafter, a local boy and Jonas Bjorkman, we lost 6-4 in the fifth set and few of you that have sat watching the fifth set, trust me playing five sets is a bit rough, and especially in Melbourne, it’s really hot and humid and the roof was open that day. To lose a five set match in the final for a Grand Slam, takes a little getting over. When Radek and myself got to the finals in 2012, it was a title I really coveted and the effort that took over 25 years to complete a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles and in men’s doubles, I was really pleased to win that AO Men’s doubles.”

“The amazing part about tennis today is that there is so much history ready to be broken. Last year when Roger Federer won his 100th title in Dubai, the mamothness of that feet shone all across the globe. When you look at my history with the Australian Open, back from 1987, they used to play in Kooyong back in the day, and then they moved to Melbourne Park, and then Melbourne Park started developing their grounds, what is now known as the NTC (National Tennis Centre), didn’t even exist. There used to be playgrounds there, cricket fields there, cricket ovals there and now when we see Australian Open developing so well, the grounds that they have done. For me, my particular favorite is the Rod Laver Arena. I’ve known Rod Laver since I was 12 years old. I was in a test academy in South India called BAT and Rod Laver was the one idol in tennis I looked up to. For me, he epitomized what an athlete should be, he was a thorough gentleman, he stood for truth, claims for it, competition, competiveness and to me Rod Laver is one of the greatest athletes produced in the world. So to play at the Rod Laver Arena, which I think is one of the best arenas in the world because as the boys who succeed me will tell you, tennis is played for over three weeks there. Apart from that, I have seen Motocross, I’ve seen Tom Jones and Sting perform and other events at Rod Laver Arena which are so far away from tennis that are so magical to Melbourne Park. I think that five square mile radius has some of the best sports in the world, you have the swimming area, NCG, you’ve got the Melbourne Park. So really the history of the AO, as we know as it, as the tennis fraternity, starts in Melbourne. It’s the first Grand Slam of the year, and there’s Serena Williams is looking to break her crazy record, Rafael Nadal is looking to get to Roger Federer’s records, and then you look at some of us who are looking to make our own history there. Right now, tennis is in such a great position that when few of us athletes win a tournament it is going to be great. I think the Australian Open in 2020 is going to be a fabulous destination in sport all together, because if Serena or Rafael get into the Finals, the whole world is going to converge into Melbourne. For me, Australia is my favorite destination, one because it’s away from the rest if the world, so the population is bit easier, and the grounds are so big, so as an athlete is it’s easier to meander around and enjoy the fun fare that sports and entertainment bring together. The 2020 Australian Open is going to be fun and I hope I can create some of my own history there too.”

On Australian Open 2020 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

“As the first Grand Slam of the year, you generally get seven weeks off before the Australian Open. So Australian Open is the grand slam that you see first time winners coming in and you see players playing tournaments before the Australian Open to get one down. Generally, at the Australian Open you see a few upsets happening because it’s the first Grand Slam of the year. This year’s Australian Open is going to be very unique, because pertinent to the Olympics being in the same year, Roger Federer just announced that he will play the Olympics 2020 and for tennis fans around the world that is fantastic, because there is always a question whether he is going to continue or not. But don’t be surprised if you see Roger at the last couple of days in AO, we know he is going to push really hard in the final sprint after what he has been able to do over the last few years reinventing himself to win more Grand Slams. He came a sliver shy of winning a record Wimbledon titles and it’s amazing whatever he is doing to keep reinventing himself to keep winning titles.”

On Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

“The Olympics is a ways away. As far as I am concerned, I was conceived at the Olympics in 1972, when my parents were there. I was born for the Olympics, being born in 1973. Every Sunday morning after the church I used to polish my dad’s medal and everything I have dreamt for is to play for our flag and to play for our people so if I am ever called to play for our country, rest assured I will be there. As far that goes, I have got the world record already for the most number of Olympics played, and I think the eighth Olympics will be India’s record to make sure that we actually seal that record. Anything and everything I could do to give hope and dreams to our kids that they can be worthy of anything, I will do it.”

On Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis

“The Australian Open is the one Grand Slam where I have won the mixed doubles with both Martinas. I won with Navratilova first and for me Martina Navratilova epitomizes the perseverance and the reinvention that an athlete can go through. As a woman in her time, in the 70s and the 80s, where fitness and diet and gym work was not really prevalent, she took it to a new level, she took fitness - as an athlete to levels in tennis that were then seen all across sports, which is quite amazing. To have played with Navratilova over three years and to be that close to her over time has helped me in my career, that at 46 I keep reinventing myself in my training methods, my diet and my fitness. In any professional sport, Martina Navratilova has taught us how physical fitness is a prerequisite. If I go back to one of the greatest Australian Open Finals where Djokovic beats Nadal, just two min short of 6 hours, the physical and mental fitness of those two athletes is mind boggling. Navratilova taught me that and that’s the reason I had such a long career because I learned from her. Martina Hingis, on the other hand, taught me a lot about technique because I do not consider myself a very talented tennis player, I am more of an athlete. I felt that with Martina, her groundstroke technique and volleying technique and just technique in general was just phenomenal. Playing with her I used to practice hours and hours so our matches were just extensions of our practice sessions. Playing with her in the practice session before the 2015 Australian Open Final, we put in 2 hours of practice before the match. When we got out to play against Mladenovic and Nestor, we were so sharp and warm that winning that match was really a kind of extension to practice it happened so easily that when we finished and were at the prize ceremony, we were like what just happened the match was really quick. Both those two athletes show us how great tennis is as a sport. Navratilova invented the game in 1980s and 90s and Hingis continued to win with such grace. I am very blessed to have both of them to have as family.”

On Young Athletes

“Over the last 30 years of my career I hope that I have been instrumental in the infrastructure of tennis growing a lot in our country. When I started out, we grew up playing in grass courts down in Chennai, when I moved to Madras as it was called, we used to play in cow dung courts. We never had any synthetic or floodlit courts and till today we don’t have one indoor court. So in our tropical climate when we have torrential rains, for about 3.5-4 months, a lot of athletes don’t get to play for a majority of those months, which is a long time. A lot of our athletes are going over to America and Europe, different parts of Asia to really hone their skills. Tennis is a niche and beautiful sport, which speaks of equality and equal rights, and for me, to build athletes in India is what’s important.”

On Fitness

“If you look at my family - mum in basketball, dad in hockey and I got tennis - what’s universal for my family is athleticism, the sports medicine training, the sports fitness training and the mental training. Back in the day people would talk about how fierce I was an athlete, as a competitor, they kept on saying I was the only Indian athlete who mentally was tough, I don’t think so. I think there were a lot of athletes out there that were tough, who showed it in different ways. If I had to look at an M.S. Dhoni, what an amazing captain. If I had to look at Virat at the moment, what a phenomenal captain. He lives with his heart on the sleeve. If I look at Dada from Kolkata, we grew up together in 1991-92 playing in Salt Lake stadium training there, another great captain. If I look at Sunil Chhetri, phenomenal captain, he has almost reinvented himself in the last 3-4 years, he is look more fit now that he looked 10-15 years ago. So really if you look at sport in our country, you look at PV Sindhu, you look at Saina, you look at the boxers, the shooters, the list could go on. You look at how well our soccer boys have just done, the list could go on. With the different leagues and sports in the country, I think we all learn from cricket and we continue to learn from cricket on how we can grow as a sporting nation.”

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