Sania Mirza talks about success, controversies, playing in Pakistan and her wish to be number one.
London, UK – Aged 42, Leander Paes is showing no signs of hanging up his racket.
The Indian doubles specialist teamed up with Martina Hingis to win the mixed doubles crown at the US Open, the pair’s third title this season – including the Wimbledon crown two months ago.
Hingis and Paes became the first duo to capture three major mixed titles in the same year since Margaret Court and Marty Riessen achieved the feat in 1969.
The triumph earned Paes a ninth mixed doubles title at a grand slam, a record.
But is age just a number for the 18-time grand slam winner?
“Yes it is,” Paes told Al Jazeera ahead of his Wimbledon triumph earlier this year.
|Paes’ grand slam titles|
Australian Open: 1
French Open: 3
US Open: 3
Australian Open: 3
French Open: 0
US Open: 2
“I’m very passionate about what I do. I love the sport. I love the way of life. It’s a very clean and healthy life. Our rankings change every week and that’s beautiful because that’s how I know where I stand every single week.”
Paes sounded excited talking about the sport he’s been playing since he was a kid. His energy levels were high despite him playing two matches going the distance prior to the scheduled interview.
Al Jazeera: How important is it to have good people around you?
Leader Paes: To come here [at Wimbledon] and having won the title six times, I have a big responsibility to perform. It works when you have a great team. My fitness coach has been with me for 23 years. The yoga master, masseur and trainer who travels with me has been with me for 24 years, the tennis coach for 19 years. My father is a doctor and has been [my doctor] for life. So to have that team around me is a real blessing.
Al Jazeera: But how do you train your body? What is the motivation after having achieved so much already?
Paes: For me, it’s difficult to adjust to the cold. I’m from Kolkatta, I like the summer. But I know my body isn’t what it used to be. Now I focus on peaking four times a year. I don’t play a full calendar. I only play 16 tournaments in the year, basing them all around the grand slams. Next year’s Olympics will be my focus now, my seventh Olympics. That’s something I take very seriously.
Al Jazeera: You’ve had over 700 doubles wins and 99 wins in singles. Is there a part of you that wants to reach that milestone?
Paes: I had a great run in singles. I’ve beaten the Samprases of the world and had a good run in the Davis Cup as well. In hindsight, if I could write a note to myself in 1999 when I gave up singles, I would’ve played it longer. I was doing well but I didn’t continue playing.
I was more focused on doubles because I was number two but yet to win a grand slam. I wanted to prove that Indians can be world beaters and grand slam champions.
Al Jazeera: So what’s left for you to achieve on the tennis courts now?
Paes: I’m very humbled with the blessings I’ve had, having won so much already. Not even in my wildest dreams would I have imagined winning so many Wimbledon titles or grand slams or win singles in the Olympics. I did believe, since I was eight or nine, that I was going to win an Olympic medal.
You see I come from a pedigree of athletes. My mom captained the Indian basketball team and my father won an Olympic medal in hockey. I was born into these genetics.
And then there’s the work ethic and the drive I have. I don’t depend just on luck. Luck favours the brave and the hard-working. I’ve worked really, really hard over the last 26 years. To have those trophies in the cabinet, it’s all very systematically done.
I’ve never really talked about how systematic it really is. But to understand the effort and workload that it takes day in, day out over the year, we could sit here for the next week and have this wonderful conversation.
Al Jazeera: Is your success paving way for Indian kids to take up the sport?
Paes: We had seven Indians in the draw but coming into the second week, there are only three of us left. It’s a great improvement compared to five to 10 years ago. We have a lot more options in doubles rather than singles. It’s because of physicality, the way the game has changed and evolved. We Indians are more intellectual than physical.
Al Jazeera: But maybe it’s also the fact that there are no role models for them to follow in singles?
Paes: That’s a very good point. All sports require a lot of role models but if you talk of achievers, you have to show we can be world beaters or be grand slam champions. It’s more coupled with what you are saying. It’s also a training system.
The infrastructure is improving. It could always be better, we could always have more tournaments.
The IPTL brought a lot more limelight to the game and stars to India and that’s wonderful. It’s a bit early to tell its effects but when you see your idols play, you want to emulate that and you start learning tennis.
Follow Faras Ghani on Twitter: @farasG