Indian tennis star Leander Paes is not likely to forget his age.
Journalists just won’t let him.
Paes became the oldest male grand slam winner by winning the U.S. Open doubles at 40 years of age in 2013. An impressive accolade – albeit one that now follows him wherever he treads.
Thankfully Paes is not a character to let a trifling number get in the way of success. And in part, he has 18-times grand slam winner Martina Navratilova to thank for that.
There is a charming synchronicity between Paes and Navratilova. In 2003, Paes partnered Navratilova in the doubles at the Australian Open as she became the oldest female grand slam winner at 46. Navratilova then went on to win the U.S. mixed doubles in 2006.
It only seems right that players holding the ‘oldest to have…’ award should have shared a court, and won, together.
“Yes I do!” Paes told Al Jazeera at London’s O2 on Wednesday when asked if he got bored of the age question.
“It’s such a funny thing. Martina won a grand slam at 49, and she played until she was 50. I have got 10 years to go. I don’t know what you are talking about!”
It is this sort of attitude that keeps Paes competitive and journalists questioning their obsession with age. However, with athletes increasingly breaking through age barriers, it is no surprise certain players are becoming iconic for their enduring sports talent.
“Sport has changed. Federer is still going and Serena is dominating. She is not 19 any more but is still in great physical shape,” said Paes after his doubles defeat to Fernando Verdasco and David Marrero at the ATP World Tour Finals.
“When you are 19 every point is frustrating but you learn a lot with age. You have to be better than you were today – the experience actually helps.”
Perhaps, instead of glorifying (or pestering) ageing racketeers, we should spare a thought for youngsters trying to break through.
“I don’t feel sorry for them because they are going to come and bite you and take your spot,” Paes says.
I put bread and butter on the table for my children, I have an orphanage with 10,000 children in India. I look after my family and all my coaches and trainers and their family.
“Don’t ever feel sorry for them! But it’s much harder to break into the top of game than it was earlier. Competition is so fierce.”
Competition could not be fiercer than at the World Tour Finals where the top eight doubles partners play the final tournament of the season.
The title has special value to Paes – being one of a few that have slipped through the net. India’s former number one has 14 doubles grand slam titles and a career grand slam, but in 14 attempts at the world tours has failed to claim the title.
“Don’t remind me,” Paes jokes when I ask him about his lack of success at the competition.
“I want to win it a little bit,” the four-time finalist teases. “Just a little bit – I have had such an amazing career to be in 31 grand slam finals and winning an Olympic medal in singles.”
“It would be the icing on the cake…To go out there and add it to my showcase would be fun. A lot of fun.”
It seems fun, along with good genes, could be the secret to his long-lasting career. Paes certainly has plenty of fun with his doubles partner Radek Stepanek out on court.
“I’ve had a great three decades of playing the game of tennis – a wonderful career. I love what I do and I’m very passionate and work very hard.
“To play for my fans, people, team is great. I have been with my coach Rick Leach 19 years, Sanjay Singh 24 years, fitness coach 23 years and my father is my doctor – I play for these people.”
Tennis fans back in India couldn’t have dreamt of a better spearhead for their sport. Paes is articulate, fun and extremely professional – he knows he is playing for far more than just himself.
“I put bread and butter on the table for my children, I have an orphanage with 10,000 children in India. I look after my family and all my coaches and trainers and their family.”
He may have a lot of responsibility back in India, but right now Paes’ attention is on London’s O2 court. With one win and one loss in the competition, the final round robin match is an all-or-nothing encounter.
The best thing Paes can do for his team, nation and anyone who has cracked the 40-year mark is lift another title against exhausted, younger opposition.
But if he does, there is little chance of the age question going away.
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