Exclusive: 'My goal has been to put India on the world map' - Leander Paes reflects on his trophy-laden career, life during and after COVID-19 pandemic and more

Written By: Digvijay Singh Deo WION Web Team
New Delhi, Delhi, India Published: Apr 27, 2020, 08:04 PM(IST)

Exclusive | Leander Paes in conversation with WION Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Leander Paes, one of the most decorated sportspersons not only in India but the entire world, in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, opened up on his life in lockdown, his trophy-laden career, future of sports post-coronavirus pandemic, motivation to play in another Olympics, and more.

With COVID-19 pandemic leaving the sporting calendar shattered, players and support staff have been restricted to train and work indoors. While many continue to prepare themselves for the resumption of the halted season, others are taking this time to take a look at their respective careers while spending quality time with their family. 

Leander Paes, one of the most decorated sportspersons not only in India but the entire world, in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, opened up on his life in lockdown, his trophy-laden career, future of sports post-coronavirus pandemic, motivation to play in another Olympics, and more. 


Digvijay Singh Deo: Good to see you bright and cheerful as always leander...from serves and volleys it is 'jhadoo' and pocha'  as you messaged me a short while back...

Leander Paes: You're giving my family secrets away, I've traded my forehand and backhand for 'jhadoo and pocha', just a few more weeks of practice and I might go professional.

DSD: How’s it been? The family has been separated due to the lockdown and you are with your elderly father in Mumbai?

Leander Paes: The coronavirus has hit us in such a way that people are living in fear. As of now, we do not have a way to confront it apart from practising social distancing and staying at home. I have a huge extended family because of my mixed Bengali and Goan lineage, so I'm very concerned for their well being. My mother and step-mother are in Kolkata. Luckily, my father and my daughter are here with me in Mumbai. Taking care of a 75-year-old and 14-year-old is quite a challenge, but it is great that I'm able to spend such quality time with them at a stretch after almost 30 years.

One of my nieces is in Italy, and another niece is in Spain. My younger sister is in California, so it is a little stressful since my family is spread out all over the world and I'm concerned about their health. That makes it all the more important to connect with people through social media or video calls. It is important to stay happy and positive while following the government's guidelines on social distancing. We must adhere to the government regulations to overcome the crisis as soon as possible. I'm really trying to make the most of my time during this lockdown, trying out new things that I haven't been able to do in the last 30 years. I must say it's actually a lot of fun.

DSD: How’s Doc doing, hope you are being a good son....remember he is the senior olympian in the family...

Leander Paes: My father is doing well, he told me to say hi to you, you're one of his favourites. My father is 75 now, he has a few health issues. One of the reasons I decided that 2020 would be my last season was so that I could spend some quality time with him. He's my hero, best friend, confidante and doctor. He's the guiding light that I look up to. Being away from the tennis circuit, to be able to spend 24 hours with him has been a lot of fun. He's a great storyteller and since he's a doctor, he has his opinions on how we can tackle the pandemic.  I think everyone in the world should take this opportunity to spend quality time with their loved ones.

DSD: You had announced that this would be your last year on the professional tour...now considering that most of the year is going to be a write-off do you reevaluate your plans?

Leander Paes: I haven't yet re-evaluated my plans to retire. I had a great start to the season at the Australian Open and then enjoyed my time on the Indian circuit too. But the farewell I received at the Dubai open was really special. Dubai has always been one of my favourite tournaments to compete in. No one expected this pandemic to hit us and wreak havoc in our lives. For most people in the world, life has come to a standstill. Professionally, whether it is sport, entertainment or the corporate sector, all these industries have been badly hit by the coronavirus crisis. No industry or no person is immune to the effects of the pandemic. I think in this situation we find ourselves in, it is really important to reinvent ourselves as individuals. With regards to my final season, I will evaluate the situation with my team once the lockdown is over and the season is up and running again.

But at this point in my life when I'm 47 years old, it is important to learn new skills. I must learn to do my corporate work through digital platforms and also motivate and entertain people through the means that we have. I believe the world is not going to be the same post the COVID-19 crisis. Companies are already laying off employees and cutting salaries by half. Because of the shutdown, it will become necessary for people to reinvent themselves.

Exclusive | Leander Paes in conversation with WION

DSD: Let’s be realistic, Leander, even if the lockdown is lifted, even if life slowly limps back to normal do you see sporting action resuming by end of August in your sport. So many factors are dependent on it like travel restrictions, flights, quarantine regulations...

Leander Paes: I don't see it resuming in August. In my humble opinion, we're going to start towards the end of the year or the early part of 2021. I was chatting with one of my tennis friends on the current situation and he told me he'll just be happy to get through this year unscathed, and that to me reflects the mindset of most people in the world. Once the lockdown ends, there will be a great need for professional sport and entertainment in our lives. I feel we in India are going to be in lockdown for at least two months more. So I will re-evaluate my career later in the year. I have to play in three more grand slams to hit that mark of playing in 100 majors.

If I participate in the Olympics next year, it will be my eighth games and it would special to get that record for India. I'm trying to reinvent myself during this period, I have been doing webinars, speaking to 300-400 people. I advise them on how to use their home-space and how to get through the day in a productive manner with minimal access to resources.i feel mental health right now is more important than physical health. People can use this period to learn new skills. That could be learning how to paint, or learning how to play a musical instrument we can read books or have deep conversations with our loved ones that we've never had before.

I feel we are always stuck in the rat race, chasing material things or professional accomplishments. So it is important to spend this time productively but on yourself.  Because once this lockdown ends, we will be back in the race. It might take some time for things to return to normalcy, especially in sport and entertainment but eventually, they will. I think there might be new inventions which will change the way we consume sport. The human race is very adaptable and we will overcome this crisis. My heart goes out to those people who are struggling physically and mentally in these times. I'm trying to reach out to as many as I can and make a difference in their lives.

DSD: The other thing here is anxiety, obviously you have been around for a long time and perhaps can deal with the frustration of staying locked up and without a clear goal but what about the rest of the sporting fraternity.anxiety is not good for anyone

Leander Paes: That is the biggest challenge for everyone. Regardless of what line of work we're in or what kind of position we in our jobs, everyone has to deal with anxiety in these times of crisis, there are high levels of stress. Some of us are fortunate that we are financially secure and have enough to get through tough times. But others who are not as privileged work on a daily basis to put food on the table. My heart goes out to families who are living in small chambers and struggling for essential services. I have travelled all over the world, but I never forget how fortunate I am to be in the position am in. In India, you don't have to look very far to see the extreme poverty in which people live.

Right now, none of my household staff is coming to work, but all of them are getting their full salaries and I even ensure that all of them have access to essentials. My security guard's mother needed an operation just before the lockdown and I provided him with the financial support he needed. I think it is very important to help those who are less fortunate than you, as much as we can. Over this period, we have lost over 10 family friends, so it has not been easy at all for us. One of my father's closest friends lost his life. When you look at the death count in the world due to the virus, it is mind-boggling how high the numbers are.

But I feel this crisis has also taught us to be more compassionate towards others. We have always been taught by our parents, that if we do our little bit to help society and those who are less fortunate than us, then the world will be a better place, I think that holds true more so now than ever before. This is a great lesson for us as well, we must reflect on how we were exploiting nature and disturbing the balance of the earth. We must look after our planet and make it a better place for the next generation.

DSD: Good to see tennis stars like  Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all taking to social media to keep fans engaged.

Leander Paes: Yes, I have seen quite a bit of social media activity by tennis players over the last few weeks, I myself am going to come up with something, you'll get to see in about a week or so. Entertaining people is something I love doing. Before the coronavirus hit us, the world that we were living in was so fast-paced and stressful. I have always tried to entertain people and bring whatever happiness I can in their lives. I am by no means perfect but I have always tried to make a positive difference in other people's lives. I live by that motto. So now I'm going to use social media to teach how to be mentally and physically fit. I'm also going to be interviewing people from different walks of life and try to make the most of my new endeavour. Life is all about adapting. We have to grow as individuals, over the last 15 or 20 years, you and I have grown together as professionals and as people. Our relationship has also been through ups and downs, but there is mutual respect for each other, which I cherish.

When you look at the various global crises of the past, most of them lasted for a few years, be it Spanish influenza in the early 20th century or the two World Wars. Right now we're just on our 56th day of the pandemic, so we have to look at this from a different perspective.in my opinion, the theory of life is getting back up after being knocked down. It is the survival of the fittest, both mentally and physically. This is a huge challenge for the human race, we have to come together and make this world a better place to live in.

Exclusive | Leander Paes in conversation with WION

DSD: I have asked this to a lot of other leading voices in Indian sport and am asking you this as well, how important is the role of sportspersons in this period. No sport happening but you can connect with your fans and come up a series of activities like you did with the volley challenge. Lots of tennis fans especially in India had a blast watching you and Mahesh Bhupathi challenge each other on Twitter. That competitive spirit still rages...

Leander Paes: Yes, my friendship with Mahesh has always been strong. I have always respected him as an individual. But things are always going to be very competitive between us. We have always had a good inter-personal relationship, but we are very different as people and approach things in a contrasting manner.  Participating in the volley challenge with Mahesh was fun. Mahesh and I have always tried to prove to this country that we can be world-beaters. We were the world number one doubles pair at one point of time and I don't think any Indian duo held that ranking before us.

We proved to India that it was possible for us as a country to win grand slams and compete for the big events at the very highest level. Mahesh has 12 grand slam titles, while I have won 18 majors, so it is great that we have had such wonderful careers in the sport. We have always had a great camaraderie and it is important in times like these to show people that despite our differences, we have unconditional love and respect for each other. That's the call of the day, to support everyone in whatever way we can. If Mahesh calls me in the middle of the night and says he needs my help, I'm going to be there for him regardless of what the matter is. That's just the bond we share, every relationship goes through its ups and downs but it's important to put your ego aside and be there for your friends when they need you the most.

DSD: The other double whammy for you is the postponement of the Olympics. You wanted to play this one too...

Leander Paes: 100%. Right now every match I'm playing is not only a record for me but a record for India. I'm just three grand slams away from participating in a 100 grand slams. I've always tried to emulate my parents in my life. My goal has been to put India on the world map and I believe in my three decades as a player I have been able to achieve that. I have had a successful career, winning grand slams and getting that special Olympic medal in 1996. So in the last 100-metre sprint of my career, I feel it is important to keep motivating myself, which is really hard at my age of 47. It takes incredible effort to push myself to train, go to the gym and be happy after three decades of playing at the top level. It is a huge challenge to keep myself motivated.

The need of the hour is innovation and my team is trying to be creative in my training and preparation. Even the household work that I do is part of my training now. I do my chores during the hottest part of the day so that I can maximise my effort when I'm back on the court. I train pretty hard at home, I do about an hour on my static bike at home, do shadow and footwork drills. It's almost like I am teaching myself the magic of tennis again. So it is a very interesting phase but I'm also focused on other things in my life which are equally important.

DSD: And you look around you at those for whom this was to be the last Olympics...Roger Federer, Mary Kom, Serena Williams, even Tiger who wanted to play his first Olympics, for some this may be a year too far...

Leander Paes: When you look at someone like Tiger Woods, he has literally won every tournament there is to win in golf, he is just one shy of breaking the all-time record for most wins on the PGA Tour. So it is very interesting to look at what keeps top athletes motivated to participate at an Olympic Games. When an athlete has a certain target in mind and has a passion to chase that dream, that passion has to outweigh the effort that goes in to achieve that goal. So that means that if you have a niggle or a minor injury, you will still go out there and train with intensity because there is an end goal in mind. Today being in lockdown, there is no goal to work towards, because we don't know when action is going to resume. I'm not sure US Open is going to be held and I even doubt the Asian swing will take place in the latter part of the year.

So right now it is important for every athlete to keep fit and live in the now. The mental toughness and skills that athletes acquire over a period of time, can be shared with people during the coronavirus crisis. It is important to spread positivity and happiness during the lockdown. It is also the time to spend quality time with your family. When people say they are bored during the lockdown, I try to encourage them to learn a new skill or a hobby. There are online classes available and we can make full use of this time. W can also take this opportunity to reach out to people who we have not been in touch with and contribute to their well-being.

Exclusive | Leander Paes in conversation with WION

DSD: Do you think this Olympic postponement will hit the amateur sportsperson more than the tennis player or the golf professional.in tennis you have your Grand Slams and Tour championships, in golf, you have the Majors. the amateur sportsperson spends four years waiting for the Olympics.

Leander Paes: I think that the ripple effect of this pandemic goes right through the stratosphere of human society. As you said, there are some of us who get to play four majors every year, but some amateur athletes only play one Olympics every four years. I sometimes find it hard to believe that I have played in 7 Olympics and I'm aiming to go for my eighth. But we have to look at things in perspective, my heart goes out to people who have lost their jobs and those who are struggling to get food on the table during the crisis. Less than one per cent of the world are professional athletes, so we have to find ways to adapt just like the rest of the world has.

Also when it comes to individual sports, we athletes do not have a contract, so there is no guaranteed paycheck every month. Whereas most athletes who play team sports get regular wages every week or month.i'm so proud that my fellow sportsman, Cristiano Ronaldo led by example and encouraged his Juventus team-mates to take a pay cut, so that the jobs of other staff of the club, who are not as fortunate as them, can be saved. Ronaldo and his team-mates have agreed to forego four months worth of wages to contribute to the Italian club. Apart from that, he has also donated to medical equipment to a hospital in Portugal.

I look up to such athletes, who step up during tough times and fight for what they believe in. They are willing to do the right thing for humanity and lead with their actions and not just with their words. This reminds me of the stand Muhammad Ali took when he refused to fight in Vietnam because he was against the war the united states was waging in the country .so these kinds of athletes really transcend the world of sport. Nelson Mandela also dedicated his life to what he believed in. I was fortunate enough to know him very well and did a lot of work with his foundation in South Africa. When I used to speak to him about any topic, the depth of knowledge he had was incredible.

When I think about the great man, my mind cannot help but recall that he spent 27 years in jail, not 50 odd days. He fought for 27 years because he believed in his cause and eventually prevailed. These tales of triumph stand out. The hardships that we face cannot be controlled., but what we can control is how we react to them. That is the call of the day. We all have to stay home, follow the guidelines and work together. This is just another tennis match and we are definitely going to ace it. Everyone in the world has to play their part in this battle.

DSD: When we talk Olympics especially in Indian sport there are two definite periods, the hockey team run from 1928 till 1980 and then the rise of the individual performances post 1996. Let’s be fair no one gave you a ghost of a chance at Atalanta but you beat some pretty big names to win a medal and that too in singles..is that your greatest triumph in sport?

Leander Paes: Yes it is. Since I have had such a great career in doubles and mixed doubles, my singles performances get overshadowed a lot. I have also had a successful singles career over the last 25 years, which I cherish. I beat Roger Federer in Palm Springs back in 2000 and I once also got the better of Pete Sampras when he was world number one. But my bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics remains my greatest triumph, simply because I dedicated my whole life to it.

Ever since I can remember, every Sunday after church, I used to polish my father's medal which he won at the 1972 Munich Olympics. My biggest dream was to emulate my father, who was my hero. My goal was to get India's first individual medal since Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won the bronze in wrestling in 1952. Every day that I woke up, I worked on my quest to win that medal for my country. The reason I gave up football, in which I was more talented, was so that I could play a sport which could take me to the Olympics. Everything I have done has been to put India on the map, patriotism drives me. I used to iron my parents' India jerseys. Dad's jersey number was 10 and my mother wore number 5 for the basketball team. It is that passion that drove me to the podium at Atalanta. I felt immense pride when the Indian flag was hoisted during the medal ceremony. I want to show all Indians that great things are possible with hard work. India's strength lies in its unity and diversity. We come together as one in times of strife and that is what we need to do now, show compassion towards one another. So, yes the Olympic medal is my greatest triumph and it sits right next to my father's medal in the house. It is great to be able to spend this time with my dad, I'm extremely close to him and cherish these moments. It feels great that I am able to say that I was able to emulate what my father did at the Olympics. I wouldn't be what I am without the support of my parents, my fans and the various people in the media who have supported me over the last 30 years. Whether it be positive or negative coverage, friends like you have supported me through thick and thin and I really value that as a player.

DSD: Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt and even Karnam Malleswari told me how seeing you on the podium inspired them to covet an Olympic medal. How proud are you of the fact that you made India believe in our sportspersons at that top-level?

Leander Paes: I am lucky enough to have played through so many generation s of athletes. When I started out, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and jimmy connors were playing. Since I have been playing professionally, there have probably been more than 8 prime ministers India has had. It has truly been a phenomenal journey, I feel like am blessed to be able to have the career I have had. It is because of the life lessons that I have learned from my family, my coaches and my loved ones, that I have been able to have such a long career.

I have such great friendships with legends like Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni. I really value that I am able to call such great sportspersons my friends. I keep learning things from them. I even get to spend time with people from the film fraternity like Abhishek Bachchan. I grew up watching his father's films and he is a real idol of mine. When I was a small boy in Kolkata, I never thought that I would be able to interact with such eminent people from all walks of life. Amitabh bachchan worked in kolkata for a short while and he went on to become a global superstar, that also drove me to greater heights. In tennis, we had never really won a grand slam, so my father and I had to create a path for me to be successful.

Even financing travel all over the world for tennis tournaments was a challenge back then. Some nights I spent in locker rooms because I couldn't afford a hotel to stay in. I was a shy kid then, you couldn't tell that now, but back then I did not have the confidence to ask someone if I could share the room with them. I respect every indian athlete who aims to put India on the world map. I admire them for striving to show the world their passion for their respective sport. Even now I message Sushil Kumar every few days and we share a few notes. When you look at India as a country, we are extremely rich in our diversity and strength. Now our sporting richness has also grown exponentially since I started playing.

I see legends like Sania Mirza, Pullela Gopichand, Rahul Dravid, Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri, who have achieved so much in their fields. It was incredible to see PV Sindhu win the silver medal at the 2016 Games. We have certainly come a long way in sport, but I must add there is a long way to go. The dream is to come back from an Olympics with a handful of medals, and I see it as my responsibility to help achieve that dream. It is important for retired athletes who had great success in their careers to pass their knowledge to the next generation. We have a lot of work to do if we want a singles Grand Slam champion from India, which is our endeavour as a nation. 

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