Melbourne: In his 28th season on tour and even after winning 18 Grand Slam titles in men’s and mixed doubles, the 45-year-old Leander Paes still feels the need to reinvent himself to keep up with the changing times in professional tennis. Born to parents from sporting backgrounds, the Indian turned professional in 1991 as a singles player rising to world number 73 with his serve-and-volley game.
He went on to win the Olympic bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games in men’s singles, quite a feat in a cricket-mad country starved of individual success in Olympic sports.
He has not tasted grand slam success since he and Martina Hingis won the mixed doubles title at the 2016 French Open but Paes is not ready to put his racket down yet.
“Passion, I love the game,” Paes told Reuters when asked what keeps him going. “I love fitness and the hard work that goes behind it. I really, really enjoy being on the court and the competition and the fierceness.
“Just to go out there and learn new shots, learn new movements, learn new things with the diet, with the scientific training the young kids are teaching me.”
At the ongoing Australian Open, Paes made a first round exit in men’s doubles with partner Mexican Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela and suffered a second round defeat with local Samantha Stosur in mixed doubles.
Paes has partnered 121 players in men’s doubles at the last count but was not sure if the number was 22 or 23 in mixed doubles.
Paes remains popular in tennis circles and a sizeable number of fans turned up to watch him play at the Australian Open.
“It’s pretty special. I am very blessed to have an unbelievable following and that’s one of the huge reasons that keeps me going,” he said.
“I love to entertain people, I love to bring them some happiness in their lives. I like to give them a sense that they can achieve their dreams as well, especially the young kids.”
Paes holds a career Grand Slam in both forms of doubles and says he is still highly sought after as a doubles partner.
“This time in the locker room I have got 23 guys who have asked me to play. It’s been quite fun,” he said.
The former doubles number one has slipped out of top 50 but is determined to work his way up the rankings ladder.
Known for his athleticism on the court that has endeared him to fans, Paes promised to be even fitter in 2019 having also added a “bit” of martial arts to his training schedule.
“I do a little bit, there are a bunch of different things I do. I look at the modern training, I look at my body type, my speed, my health and I have done quite a few different things.”
Paes said he was not thinking about an eighth Olympic appearance in Tokyo next year but was not contemplating retirement either.
“One day it will come to an end for sure, I know that. Everything that starts comes to an end, that’s just the circle of life,” he added.
“But as far as I am concerned I have never ever quit in my life. I am going to be 46 in a few months but I feel fit, I feel strong, I feel healthy and happy. I am living my dream.”