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Leander Paes: the Pride of a Nation and a Superstar’s Legacy
Olympic Bronze Medalist, 12 Grand Slam titles, world’s former No. 1 ranked doubles tennis player, Leander Paes is no stranger to accolades. Most recently, he led the Washington Kastles to a perfect 16-0 season while capturing his 2nd MVP title.
Having won the most Grand Slams of any Indian player, Paes has not only been a champion of Indian Tennis, but also a true hero or pillar representing Indian sports and bringing much needed pride, joy, and recognition to India in the global sports scene. I recently had the opportunity to interview this International Tennis Superstar and found him to be not only an ambitious athlete who has triumphed repeatedly and established his talent amongst the best in the world, but also a very passionate individual with a great desire to lift India in the international sports scene.
So having been born in a country that is predominantly defined by cricket, how did Leander Paes get inspired to join the game of tennis? Born in Kolkata, India, Leander's parents were both Olympians. His father, Vece Paes won the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics as a member of India's Field Hockey team while his mother, Jennifer Paes played for the Indian Basketball team in the 1972 Olympics. It's no surprise then that Leander would keep the family legacy going by becoming an athlete himself. At the age of 12, he decided that he wanted to represent India in the Olympics as well just like his parents. After his experience as the captain of the Indian under-15 soccer team, Leander realized that he had a much better chance of becoming an Olympian by pursuing tennis rather than soccer, especially since India wasn't doing too well in soccer. It was at that moment he decided to focus his efforts on the game of tennis and eventually climbed his way to the top of the game by becoming one of the most celebrated tennis elites of all time. Leander recalls one of his fondest childhood memories playing tennis with his father in Kolkata.
"When I played with my father, we go out to the club and they would never let kids play at this club. We would go out there and Dad would request them to let us get on to the last, farthest most court and they would say that 'he is kid, can he play…why don't you play with us in a set of doubles' and we would invariably beat them and that's how I got to play a lot of tennis back at home."
Since Leander has started playing the game of tennis, many young Indian tennis hopefuls have followed in his path. He believes that Indian Tennis has made remarkable progress and believes it to be absolutely necessary to inspire the next generation of tennis hopefuls to keep the legacy going. Leander is very proud of his fellow Indian professional tennis players and feels very encouraged by the accomplishments of his doubles partner, Mahesh Bhupathi and India's highest ranked female tennis player Sania Mirza.
"Well, in the last two decades I have tried to inspire the young kids to branch out and look at tennis as a profession. One, to get scholarships from colleges around the world and two, to become a professional athlete. I think my career really speaks for itself and in the way that I have gone out to motivate the next generation of tennis players to take tennis very seriously. Since I have won my Olympic medal in 1996, we have seen Mahesh Bhupathi come around. We have seen Sania Mirza come around. They are fabulous ambassadors for not only tennis but also for the country and amazing talent they have. We have had so many youngsters play the game and for me I feel really blessed to have the vehicle of tennis to promote in India. The infrastructure when I was growing up was not that great in India. We didn't have any synthetic courts only grass and clay and now kids have the synthetic courts which serves them better for tournaments."
While Indian sports has taken some major steps forward especially in the world of tennis, it is the hope of international athletes such as Leander Paes, that the nation of a billion continue to develop in the international sports scene and keep producing and investing in the next generation of world-class superstar athletes. Considering that India was able to win the second most gold medals and third most medals overall, Leander believes that India's performance at the Commonwealth Games was a great measure of the country's increasing strength and potential in the international sports scene. He also believes that it is crucial for India to be able to carry this competitive level of performance to the Olympic stage.
"I think at the Commonwealth Games, the athletes of India were really shinning. We won 104 medals and that's a lot of medals in one big event. To me, I still think the Commonwealth Games are more for the Commonwealth countries; the Asian Games are much bigger than that. Looking at the Olympic Games 2020, we Indians really need to look at coveting more than just one medal that we got to do last time. We have got some amazing talent, some amazing athletes out there. I think it's more a way of competing against the international, global competition in each sport. If you look at athletics, if you look at soccer and the recent win of the Japanese women's team in the World Cup, I was amazed that an Asian country could shine and be so powerful in the world stage. So in India, I think that we can really learn from that and do at the Asian Games or the Olympic Games what we did at the Commonwealth Games where we won 104 medals."
As the winner of multiple grand slam titles, an Olympic medal, and numerous other honors, what's left for Leander to accomplish on the tennis court?
"I have pretty much achieved all the goals I wanted to with tennis. Having already coveted a medal in singles in tennis in Olympics and next year will be the sixth Olympics that I will be playing in and that too it will be in London and that too in Wimbledon and so for me to covet a doubles medal there is my main target. Right now at the moment, to covet another World Team Tennis title for Washington Kastles is an immediate goal. To get the MVP of the season is another goal. But for someone like me, I like to stay in the moment. I am a practicing Buddhist and I do a lot of meditation and yoga and really staying the moment is important. So right now I focus on to covet the World Team Tennis title and worry about the Olympics next."
Beyond the world of tennis, Leander has stepped into the world of Bollywood. He is the designer for his clothing line and has founded an orphanage called Future Hope in Kolkata, where he donates 15 percent of his yearly income. His upcoming Bollywood debut includes Amisha Patel as his co-star in the film Rajdhani Express, directed by Ashok Kohli. Paes has been offered films for the last 15 years and he finally agreed to sign this film after reading the script. Considering that Leander Paes is the great grandson of the prominent 19th century Bengali Poet and Dramatist Michael Madhusudan Dutt, it's no surprise that this Tennis legend has decided to make the transition to the acting world.
Coming from the lineage of master poets and Olympic athletes, Leander Paes has definitely followed in his family's footsteps and made a significant mark in India. However, he continues to build his own legacy both on and off the tennis court while nurturing his talents for India as well as the rest of the world to enjoy and cheer. And the world definitely cheers for this superstar athlete as he steps before sellout crowds in the Kastles stadium in Washington, DC to the tunes of the super hit song "Jai Ho" played on the loudspeakers to encourage his consistent winning strokes and his passionate Washington fans screaming "Leander! Leander!"
As an athlete whose talents are celebrated throughout the world, who is an idol to so many young hopefuls, who is one of India's greatest prides, what can this legend tell us about himself that the world does not about yet?
"I like living my life to the fullest. There are a lot of things that I like doing whether it's clothing design, whether it's sports science centers in India, whether it's getting into some film that's being knocking on my door for the last 15 years. I just finished shooting my first movie which will be released soon and also my tennis which I have done for the last 20 years which I love. God has been really kind with some wonderful opportunities and then to go back to India with all these different vehicles that I am very passionate about and inspire the youth and inspire the young children to live their dreams. I think it's amazing what can be achieved with a little bit of hard work and lot of belief in oneself and I think that my career and my life really goes to explain that."
What will the world do when this tennis legend retires? What will India do? Who will India look up to for its titles and medals? Let's hope this superstar's legacy can inspire the next generation of Indian elite athletes to carry on the flame that Leander has kept burning for all these years.