I find enjoyment in trying to achieve excellence, says the 44-year-young Leander Paes
He has won 18 Grand Slam titles. In fact, he was the first player from his country to win a Grand Slam. He also has an Olympic medal to his name. Leander Paes has done it all.
Yet, at the age of 44, when most tennis stars are enjoying their retirement, Paes continues to mesmerize the world with his magic on the court.
Playing in his umpteenth Australian Open, Paes came out victorious in the first round along with his partner Purav Raja.
I spoke to the legendary Bryan brothers earlier and asked them how they continue to consistently play so well at the age of 39.
I had a similar question to ask Paes, who, at the age of 44, is doing the same thing as the Bryans.
"I think it's just passion for the game. Passion for life. I guess our records show that we know how to win matches. What's important for me is the re-invention of my game, of the training systems, and of recovery. The game has gotten a lot more brutal physically, and more demanding.
"The balls being slower and heavier mean you cant finish off points quickly. The physicality of the game has gotten a lot tougher. That, as well as age, has taken its natural course. You got to keep up physically. For me, the re-invention of the training system and recovery have helped me a lot."
"I love re-inventing my game, that's why I've been able to play for so long. I find enjoyment in trying to achieve excellence," he concluded.
The development of tennis in India
Paes, who started out as a singles player, achieved quite a lot of success. He became the first Indian to win an individual Olympic medal in tennis - at the 1996 games in Atlanta, where he won the bronze medal.
However, he made a decision to switch to doubles early in his career. The Indian tennis players who emerged after him followed in the same vein. Apart from the success rate being higher in doubles for the Indians, one of the main reasons why they made the switch was the lack of government backing and funding for the singles players.
In fact, back in Leander's time, doubles players hardly received any backing as well. It was due to his success along with Mahesh Bhupathi that tennis gained recognition in India.
"I think tennis has been a growing sport in India over the last three decades. I think there's a lot more to be done. However, I'm quite happy that over my career, I have been able to popularise the game of tennis and show that is not just a hobby. The number of Indians studying in the U.S. has increased and a lot of them have used tennis as a launchpad to a successful career.
"At the same time, over the last 20 years or so, we have racked up a lot of Grand Slam winners. When I was a kid, nobody from India had won a single Grand Slam. Now, we have close to 30 Grand Slams. That is great for a country like India, which doesn't have facilities like Australia or the USA."
The current crop of Indian singles stars, Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan - the former qualified for the Australian Open this year - have also opened up in the past about the need of funding and government backing on multiple occasions.
They have spoken about the need of having a trainer and a personal coach who travels with them all over the world for the entire year.
Paes too felt that these players require a lot of backing and are in desperate need of personal trainers and coaches.
"I think that the game of tennis has become very demanding. It is essential to have a good tennis coach as well as a trainer who focuses on fitness, massage, physiotherapy etc. If you look at some of the best players, they all have an entourage. The top players earn enough money to hire so many trainers and coaches.
So, I think that, yes, Yuki and Ram are right. You do need an entourage to excel in modern sport. Modern sport is tough, it's very physical. A lot of rehab is required. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes, including diet."
In fact, Divij Sharan, who is playing doubles along with Rajeev Ram, too, echoed the same thoughts.
"It would obviously help to have a coach and backing as well. Even if it's 4-5 of us who play the same type of tournament, it would be great if we had a coach travelling with us. But it is what it is. At the moment, we are doing the best we can, and trying to make the most of what we have."
Sharan has grown immensely over the past couple of years and his hard work has paid off as he recently broke into the top 50 in the world.
The need of the hour for the development of tennis in India
Over the past few years, a lot of sports in India have gained popularity apart from cricket. Badminton and kabaddi have become extremely popular due to a number of reasons. One, of course, is due to the fact that the Indians have made a name for themselves worldwide in these sports.
However, it is the emergence of the national leagues - the Pro Kabaddi League and the Premier Badminton League - that has made tennis and kabaddi a lot more popular and exciting amongst the fans.
Thus arises the question whether a similar league is required to boost the popularity of tennis as well.
The International Premier Tennis League, which was introduced back in 2014, did not gain a lot of traction and was not too successful.
"I think we need more ATP and WTA tournaments, especially at the Challenger Level. It gives the lower-ranked players, in the bracket of 100-150 and above, a chance to compete more often.
"If you look at the ATP Challenger calendar and look at how many are in China, you will be amazed. That is one of the main reasons why the Chinese are doing so well in tennis. Once, there was only Li Na. Now, you can rattle off 10-15 WTA and ATP players in the top 100."