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Knew Hingis and I would succeed: Leander Paes

MUMBAI,Derek Abraham(DNA): Fresh from his win in mixed doubles at the Australian Open — 15th Grand Slam — with Swiss former World No. 1, 41-year-old Leander Paes tells Derek Abraham that he has decided to play fewer tournaments every year and make them all count

Leander Paes was at his eloquent best at Sofitel Hotel in Bandra-Kurla Complex on Tuesday. (Inset) Paes and Swiss partner Martina Hingis do a Rafael Nadal after winning the mixed doubles event at the Australian Open last Sunday Hemant Padalkar dna, Reuters
Three tournaments, three finals and a Grand Slam title — you couldn’t have hoped for a better start to 2015…

It’s been a helluva start to the season. In fact, January 2015 has been more fruitful than the whole of 2014. I started off with the Chennai Open, and went to Auckland before winning in Melbourne. This is a result of the hard work done by the team on and off the court. Unlike in the past, I don’t play all season. I have decided to play 16 tournaments a year. And I want to make them all count.

How do you do what you do at 41? And how different is your approach to the game now compared to, say, 15 years ago?

That’s a great question. The approach is different. About 12 years ago, I used to play 40 weeks a year. Over the years, I have been playing fewer tournaments. And I have realised that I tend to focus a lot more on these tournaments. I know I am doing better. I find that my approach is now to focus on the big tournaments.

You are known to train in blocks. How do you ensure you peak in time for a Grand Slam?

I start my training regimen six weeks before the concerned tournament. It involves midnight sessions of cardiovascular exercise (playing rink football with journalists), riding a bicycle to strengthen my legs and thighs, and doing gym work to strengthen my upper body, shoulders and wrists so that I can hit three aces in a game. The most specific the training, the more potent the result. I wish I had this knowledge when I was 20. Look, when the body is at its best, the mind is still in the process of getting nurtured. And when the mind is at its best, the body is deteriorating. Consistency and excellence is all about the lifestyle. If you have a good lifestyle, it’s going to work. It’s all about following the processes. The results will follow.

Do you think you are playing better than ever?

I am certainly more efficient. Look, in my 25-plus years of tennis, I have seen eight generations of tennis superstars. And one of the players I admire the most today is Novak Djokovic. Look at the way he conducts his life away from the match court, in the gym, on the (jogging) track. Look at his diet, gluten-free and all. Look at his body. It’s a specimen. He has hired the right people. It’s just phenomenal.

Martina Hingis and you are two of the savviest players in the world. Did you expect to taste success so early into the partnership?

Yes, I knew we would succeed. Our individual careers speak for themselves. Not many in India know that Martina and I play together for the Washington Kastles at the World Team Tennis. And we haven’t lost a match in the last two or three seasons. She is a unique individual. Even after winning 16 Grand Slam titles, she is so humble. When I asked her to partner me, she said she was scared to play with me. What if we lose, she said. She said I was already winning with others. She also felt she had to live up to the legacy of Martina Navratilova, who I enjoyed so much success with. If Navratilova taught me how to go about my diet and fitness, then Hingis taught me about mind games, serves and ground strokes. She is not scared to follow or lead.

Are you in touch with the other Martina (Navratilova)? She watched your final…

She had my cross on her neck. We were up 3-0 in the first set, then it became 3-3. That’s when she walked in. And I told Hingis that my lucky charm just walked in.

Navratilova and you go a long way…

Both of us have been through medical adversity. She was my 9 pm phone call when I was undergoing treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Orlando (for neurocysticercosis, a parasitic infection that causes a brain abscess). When I recovered, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. So, I went to see her in Paris. There, I requested her doctor to let me take her out for dinner. We went to Annapurna, my favourite Indian restaurant. For some reason, she kept looking at the cross I was wearing. By the time we finished eating, I put the cross on the neck. And believe me, she was completely cured within six weeks. She then went and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

How strong is your faith in thought processes, visualisation, prayer and meditation?

Right now, it’s more than ever. I have been challenged quite a few times in my career — 2014, 2012, 2003, 1999, 1991. These were tough years for various reasons. That’s when you go back to your core. Do the things you have to do, and the result will follow. Look, I do most of my training when the world is sleeping or partying. When people are drinking and celebrating, I am busy sweating it out on my bicycle or in the swimming pool. To me, that is the source of inspiration. By partnering 99 guys in doubles and 26 ladies in mixed doubles, I have learnt to adapt. Every partnership is a process.

Do you fancy a career in sports administration?

When you are in a position to make a difference, you have to take up that responsibility. It could be helping two young swimmers with funds, get an athlete a college sponsorship, enable a golfer to play st St Andrews and bring a smile to the face of a young boy on a wheelchair. It’s a responsibility. Talk is cheap. I believe in doing. I believe in using my position to make a difference.

What if prime minister Narendra Modi wants you and other like-minded people like Tendulkar, Dravid and Bindra to be the unofficial sports ministers of the country?

I’ll accept it, 100 per cent. If different people from different sporting disciplines can come together to make a difference, it would be wonderful. How, which, where, when and how remains to be seen. But if such selfless people coming under one roof, then magic can happen. We can become a superpower in the field of sport. Sport is so huge now. It’s bridging ties. It’s a phenomenal vehicle in a world full of turmoil. Didn’t they stop World War II for the sake of the Olympics.

There’s a lot going on in your personal life. How do you maintain poise and achieve your goals?

Everybody goes through adversity. Thankfully, I have people who take care of my fitness, my tennis and my personal life. At the end of the day, you realise that tough times are. Eventually, the truth has to prevail. It will prevail. I know. I believe in it.

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