Saturday, May 8, 2004

ĎI will give singles my best shotí

Leander Paes is all set to play his fourth Olympics in Athens starting on August 13. Tirtha Gautam catches up with the tennis sensation in an exclusive interview during his visit to his hometown Kolkata.

Leander Paes with Martina Navratilova.
Leander Paes with Martina Navratilova. ó Reuters photo

Leander, it was great to see you back in Kolkata and playing football with the East Bengal team.

Itís always a great feeling to be back in the city where I grew up. Football was my first love and whenever I get a chance to wear my boots, I do it. More importantly, I got to meet Baichung Bhutia and it was an opportunity to say hello to the East Bengal players who have done so well this season. Actually, I am trying to get as much physical exercise as possible before the season ahead. Thatís why I decided to play some soccer. Itís going to be a very important season for me this time.

You must have planned your season carefully.

Yes, of course. Itís not going to be doubles only, but I am concentrating on my singles as well. Itís very important that I lift my singles ranking this season and get into as many Tour events as possible. Itís not going to be easy, but I am going to give it my best shot.

What will be the events that you look forward to this season?

This is the year of the Olympics and nothing gives me more satisfaction than playing for India. Of course, I look forward to defending the Wimbledon mixed doubles crown with Martina (Navratilova), among other events in Europe and the US.

Guess this will be your fourth and last Olympics?

I donít know whether it is going to be my last, but yes the fourth, for sure. And, a dream-come-true fourth, for that matter. When I started playing for India, I promised my dad (Vece) that I would play four Olympics and I am on the verge of that. This will be the best moment of my life.

You have won Grand Slam events and several Davis Cup rubbers. What makes the Olympics so special?

Simply because it is the biggest stage for sportspersons to perform. The atmosphere is huge and the excitement is mind-boggling. The worldís best tennis stars want to play the Olympics because of its sheer magnitude and sense of equality among thousands of athletes.

How exciting is it to team with Mahesh Bhupathi for the doubles again?

It feels good that we will play together again for the country. We still make a fantastic team and we will play at least a couple of tournaments (in Cincinnati and Indianapolis in July-August) before setting off for Athens. This is possibly our last chance to win a medal at the Olympics.

Itís been fantastic to see how Martina, 17 years your senior, keeps pace with you.

Martina has been amazing both on court and off it. She was a huge source of strength when I was out of competition for almost seven months with the career-ending brain lesion. She gave me the strength to rekindle my tennis career. I was more than happy to be with Martina in her Australian Open swansong.

You were given the rare honour of being a playing captain of a Davis Cup team against New Zealand in Invercargill. How have you adjusted to that position?

The honour came because the AITA thought I could shoulder the position. The job does put you under some pressure because neither Mahesh nor I are getting any younger. But I have handled pressure well in life.

You have overtaken Ramanathan Krishnan as Indiaís most experienced Cup player. Can our current players match the high standards you have set?

I started as a ball boy when Krishnan was playing. Today, I am happy to be in this position. I am lucky to have done it all. Part of my current job is to build a team for the future and we have plenty of talent. Time will tell the rest.

You suffered a rare defeat against Gouichi Motomura in the last Davis Cup tie against Japan in Osaka? This helped Japan beat India after 74 years.

There are lessons to be learnt. Our tie versus Japan gives an indication of how quickly our Asian teams are developing. As I said my primary job is to develop a solid young side. Lads like Prakash (Amritraj), Vishal (Punna) and Harsh (Mankad) have the talent to serve India. On a personal front, I am also going to give singles my best shot once again. TWF