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
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
LEANDER PAES EXULTS AFTER HIS US OPEN DOUBLES VICTORY
WITH RADEK STEPANEK