The Age­less War­rior

His 14th Grand Slam was just the in­spi­ra­tion that In­dia’s ten­nis cham­pion needed to re­new his faith and march to­wards the podium at Rio de Janeiro in 2016

India Today - - INSIDE - By G. S. Vivek

Le­an­der Paes’s 14th Grand Slam was just the in­spi­ra­tion he needed to re­new faith and march to­wards the podium at Rio de Janeiro in 2016

On the af­ter­noon of July 5, Le­an­der Paes, 40, and his 34year- old part­ner Radek Stepanek lost a marathon five- set semi- fi­nal at Wim­ble­don. By evening, they had flown out of Lon­don to start pre­par­ing for the US Open. On Septem­ber 8, with the men’s dou­bles ti­tle at Flush­ing Mead­ows in New York in the bag, they had al­ready set their sights on the World Tour Fi­nals in Novem­ber. “Forty- one now, 42, then 43,” says Paes, adding, “we’re not done yet.” Just to prove a point, two hours af­ter be­com­ing the old­est Grand Slam win­ner in the Open era, he took Stepanek for a work­out in the gym.

“Age is some­thing we look at and smile. You guys tease us about it, which is nice. For us, we re­ally take it very se­ri­ously to go out and get bet­ter ev­ery day, and to push each other,” Paes said af­ter his vic­tory. “Radek helped me be­come the old­est man or the old­est ten­nis player to ever win a Grand Slam. I thank him for that,” he added.

Paes is to ten­nis what Sachin Ten­dulkar is to cricket. Both have over­come a spate of in­juries from head to toe, seen two gen­er­a­tions pass by as they con­tin­ued to com­pete and ex­cel. Paes’s first dou­bles part­ner, Zee­shan Ali, is now his Davis Cup coach. Sanam Singh, his youngest on- court part­ner, was born when he made his pro de­but in 1991. In a 22- year ca­reer that has pro­duced 53 dou­bles ti­tles in­clud­ing 14 Grand Slams, he has played with 115 dif­fer­ent part­ners; 94 men and 21 women.

One rea­son for Paes’s longevity could be the genes he in­her­ited from his Olympian par­ents. Add to that a dis­ci­plined fit­ness regime. “His mus­cles are loaded with fast- twitch fi­bre, which helps in quick re­flexes. Paes’s hand- eye co­or­di­na­tion has im­proved with age— I’ve heard it’s a ge­netic gift In­dian men have. He is faster than light­ning,” says Dave Her­man, Paes’s Amer­i­can trainer for over 22 years.

Paes’s train­ing regime in­cludes work­outs with Su­perFlex rub­ber re­sis­tance bands, which al­low for a greater range of mo­bil­ity and ex­er­cise op­tions. He has dumped the age- old heavy iron in the gym. “The bands are joint- friendly and great for stretch­ing, strength­en­ing and speed work. This will im­prove his bal­ance, mo­bil­ity, co­or­dina- tion and joint func­tion. He doesn’t do a lot of weight train­ing,” says Her­man.

Paes stays away from un­healthy oils and fried food while hav­ing plenty of sports shakes mixed with fruit and veg­eta­bles such as broc­coli, spinach, kale, car­rot, spir­ulina, straw­ber­ries, blue­ber­ries and rasp­ber­ries. He also takes time out to prac­tise Uj­jayi breath­ing, a form of yoga he learnt dur­ing a ses­sion at Art of Liv­ing when he was 12. It keeps his mind ra­zor- sharp for

split- sec­ond de­ci­sions at the net.

It was his fit­ness that helped him over­come a ca­reer- threat­en­ing surgery. At Wim­ble­don in 2003, Paes was sus­pected of hav­ing brain tu­mour, but kept his prior com­mit­ment of play­ing mixed dou­bles with Martina Navratilova, which they won. A week later, at MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter in Or­lando, US, he was di­ag­nosed with a four- mil­lime­tre cyst on the left base, a par­a­sitic in­fec­tion in the brain.

It is one of the rea­sons why he shares a spe­cial bond with Navratilova. Paes would of­ten leave in­spi­ra­tional mes­sages in her kit­bag to keep her go­ing, de­spite his per­sonal tur­moil. To­day, Navratilova is the most vo­cal on why Paes needs to go on. DOU­BLE BEN­E­FIT Paes has al­ways un­der­stood his lim­i­ta­tions. Not­with­stand­ing his ex­ploits as a sin­gles player— in the Davis Cup, where he has felled gi­ants such as Go­ran Ivani­se­vic, or his 1996 Olympic bronze medal, his de­feat of Pete Sam­pras and his soli­tary sin­gles ti­tle in New­port, both in 1998— the Kolkataborn player knew that at 5’ 10”, he would strug­gle to sur­vive in a sport that re­quires long legs and heavy shoul­ders for big, boom­ing serves and grind­ing base­line ral­lies.

It was dur­ing the 1997- 98 sea­son, his best as a sin­gles player, that Paes



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