Leander Paes: Tennis is fun, even at 41!
Singles' finals are the headline acts at any Grand Slam tournament. Australian Open 2015 was no different. Top-ranked players Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams delivered what was expected of them. Both made history – Novak, by becoming the first man in the modern era to win five Aussie Open titles and Serena, by conquering her 19th slam.
Yet, the most heart-warming story at this year's edition came in the Mixed Doubles' event, won by Leander Paes and Martina Hingis.
Paes, 41 and Hingis, 36, steam-rolled opposition en route to the Open championship without dropping a set. Leander bagged his 15th slam, while Martina her 16th. That's a total of 31 slams at a combined age of 77 between the Indo-Swiss duo.
At a time when average age of sportsmen is getting lower, Paes-Hingis pair is antithetical to the professional sports logic. In a sport like tennis, where wrists and reflexes are of paramount importance, Paes continues to defy age-old norms.
At his age, the veteran tennis star is supposed to be playing out the vestigial remains of his career. But, here he is, winning Grand Slam titles.
On a tennis court, there is no place to hide. You are on your own. Paes passes the microscopic scrutiny of his game – both the fitness and mental aspects with flying colors every single time. His indefatigable spirit to not just play and compete but win tournaments and Majors is incredible.
Leander is also the ultimate patriot. For those that have followed his long tennis journey will know, playing for the flag inspires him the most. Leander's best tennis is often reserved for the Davis Cup and not the lucrative ATP tournaments. The veteran empties his reservoir of emotions while representing the tri-colour, every time.
There is a lesson here. A lesson for cricketers opting to play in the cash-rich T20 leagues over Tests for their country. A lesson for footballers neglecting international duty for club commitments. A lesson for every budding sportsman that there is no greater feeling than playing for your country with valour and distinction.
Leander's Twitter display picture is him on a tennis court, pointing upwards to Indian flag in the backdrop. His background picture is him celebrating with Rohan Bopanna in the Davis Cup with an emotional hug. Critics may feel this smacks of symbolism, but a closer look at the 20-odd years of Leander's career would give enough evidence to conclude otherwise.
Rewind to the 1996 Olympic Games at Atlanta, and think of him on the podium, misty-eyed with his Bronze medal and you'd realise what makes the man tick. In arguably one of the best all-time sports autobiographies, Andre Agassi delivered a ringing endorsement of Paes.
"He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips and lobs. Then, behind all his junk, he flies to the net, covers so well that it seems to work. After an hour, you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly," he wrote.
Recently, Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere was photographed holding a shisha pipe. Like most sportsmen, footballers too are strictly advised to stay away from alcohol and smoking of any kind. This was the third time Wilshere, aged 23, was guilty of breaking this unwritten rule in the middle of a season.
Contrast that with Paes, who apart from adopting a strict no-alcohol and smoking policy, also does pilates, cycles and practices yoga to remain at the top of his game. Despite not being part of a team sport, Leander's consistent dedication, spanning over 20 years, to his craft is simply remarkable.
He’s also the only tennis player to compete in six Olympic Games. Rio 2016 would be Leander's seventh appearance at the Games. For a man who has spent his entire sporting career with a spirit of service to nation, the ageless Paes' contribution to India must never be overlooked and undervalued.
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