Is chasing an eighth Olympics inspiring or insane?

In the kitchen it becomes clear that Leander Paes’ appetite for tennis verges on the ridiculous. It’s early April and the seven-time Olympian from India is cooking and he can’t help himself. In his hand the saucepan must feel like a racket. Right wrist starts twirling like he’s at the net and craziness takes hold.

He grabs a ball and starts volleying it with his saucepan against the wall. “I washed the pan first,” he laughs. They’re not just any volleys but no-look ones and he posts a clip on Twitter as a challenge. As a kid he was a kinetic show-off and now, a mere 47 next month, he’s still a playful, hand-eye hypnotist.

But is there enough left in him to keep going till Tokyo 2021? For one last Olympics? To an eighth Games? There’s a fine line between insanity and inspiration.

In the documentary The Last Dance, Michael Jordan admits he wanted to chase a seventh title and this aching competitiveness leads athletes to keep going because they have to know: Is there anything left? One last season?

It’s some-part tragic and plentiful-part crazy and yet if they listened to us and quit, they’d never be what they are. Paes was an undersized (1.78m) dynamo from a laid-back land, who took modest talent on a global trophy hunt. He won the Wimbledon junior singles, a doubles title and mixed doubles title at every Grand Slam (18 in total), was world doubles No. 1 and has the all-time record for most doubles wins (45) in the 120-year history of the Davis Cup.

Seven Olympics (a tennis record), a singles bronze in 1996, flag carrier in 2000, you’d think he’d be fed up. Yet, without asking, he starts walking me via video around his flat in Mumbai, pointing out his Beijing Olympic torch and telling boyish tales of polishing his dad’s 1972 hockey bronze (the real medal got lost, this was a participation medal). The Games isn’t a passion, it’s an infection.

He announced last Christmas that 2020 was his “farewell year”, but now with Tokyo postponed you can sense his restlessness. He’s uncertain, he’s unsure, yet records are provocative things and milestones have a gravitational pull. “Eight Olympics would be really cool, to push my mind and body that far,” he says. He’s also played in 96 Grand Slams and a 100 is a round, inviting number. Will he chase it? No, wait, can he ignore it?

For athletes this virus has brought dilemma. Some at 25 wonder whether to continue, some at 46 whether to end. Age becomes another opponent to be defied – “I have not got a single grey hair,” he grins – yet a number that is also flaunted like a badge of endurance.

Paes is so ancient he makes Roger Federer seem like he’s just out of braces. When the Indian was first ranked in doubles in early 1991, the Swiss was nine years old. If he wished, Paes could steal Al Pacino’s line from Scent Of A Woman: “I’ve been around, you know.”

How much is enough in sport and who decides when? Only the athlete. Anyway if you’re not good enough, sport will tell you because your ranking will slide – his is No. 115 in doubles – and invitations will cease. But only talent must count, not birth certificates.

At the Olympics, sailors stay in the water till they go grey and shooters stand and age well, but horse-folk are the most durable. Ian Millar, the only athlete to attend 10 Olympics, won his first equestrian medal, a silver, at the modest age of 61. Last year he revealed to Olympic.org the secret to his durability: “Twenty-five per cent eat well enough, 25 per cent keep moving, 25 per cent manage your stress, 25 per cent laugh and love.”


India’s Leander Paes lifting doubles partner Rohan Bopanna after they beat Croatia’s Mate Pavic and Franko Skugor 6-3, 6-7 (9-11), 7-5 in their Davis Cup match in March. But Croatia eventually won 3-1 to reach the 18-team Finals. PHOTO: REUTERS

Paes is so ancient he makes Roger Federer seem like he’s just out of braces. When the Indian was first ranked in doubles in early 1991, the Swiss was nine years old. If he wished, Paes could steal Al Pacino’s line from Scent Of A Woman: “I’ve been around, you know.”

In response, Paes assembled his own formula: “Twenty per cent passion; 20 per cent hard work; 20 per cent a great team; 15 per cent genes; 5 per cent an ability to laugh at life; 10 per cent luck and timing; 10 per cent a little craziness.”

Paes isn’t as fortunate as Millar, he can’t change horses, he’s got to run on the same old legs and his galloping days are mostly done. Once he moved faster than people twitch, but now he concedes, “I am slower and so is my serve.” Consistency dies like cells and he says: “At the higher level I play in spurts now. In my 20s and 30s I could play at 80-90 per cent the whole year but now that dips.”

But doubles is a chess board of four rectangles and he has to control only one. The game is faster and so kmh has to be blunted with IQ. “My experience helps me keep my tennis compact,” he says. “I keep it simple. I anticipate.” He doesn’t react, he reads tennis.

The virus is an enforced rest, time with his dad and daughter, time to do corporate talks, time to think about calendars. His ranking will determine his future and so will his pride because at the Games it’s best to be a competitor not a curiosity.

From the time I first met him at 12, he’s always found a cause to clutch onto. An Olympics at 48 sounds absurd and yet I can see him in the kitchen, twirling a saucepan and thinking: Nothing tastes better than a challenge.

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