When Leander Paes started travelling on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior tennis tour in 1989, at the age of 15, he was sent off with a one-way ticket and $750 in his pocket. That was the most you could take in foreign exchange before the economic reforms of 1992. Given the financial constraints, he travelled alone, without a coach, and at times would sleep in locker rooms to make the money last longer. Once he ran out of cash—there is no prize money on the junior tour—Paes would make his way back home to Kolkata.
“It is not easy for any family, to let their young child, travel the world and pursue a profession that had no guarantees,” Paes tells Lounge. “That too a profession where India had never excelled before—we had never won an Olympic medal or a Grand Slam title.”
But Paes’ unbridled pursuit to succeed in a sport dominated by Americans and Europeans, has taken him to some of the highest summits. On 13 December, the Indian tennis star bagged another accolade as he was selected for the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF). Paes became the first Indian—and first Asian male player—to enter the hallowed halls of the sport. The ITHF Class of 2024 also includes Vijay Amritraj and journalist Richard Evans, who were elected in the Contributor Category, which is meant for, “true pioneers, visionary leaders, or individuals/groups who have made a transcendent impact on the sport.”
Established in 1954, the ITHF has honoured 262 players from 27 countries so far, and will induct Paes and Amritraj into the Hall of Fame on 20 July, 2024 in Newport, Rhode Island. “This recognition is not for winning one Grand Slam or an Olympic medal,” says Paes, who retired from tennis in 2020 at the age of 47. “It speaks of 40 years of passion and hard work.”
The Indian tennis star already has a special connection with Newport. It was on the grass courts of this harbour city in US, that the Indian won his first and only singles ATP title in 1998. A few weeks later, Paes earned the biggest scalp of his career—Pete Sampras, ranked No. 2 in the world at the time—in New Haven. For Indian sports fans in the 1990s, Paes’ high-voltage heroics were a constant source of delight.
Standing at just 5’10”, the Indian brought some of the big names of the sport—the likes of Henri Leconte, Goran Ivanisevic, even Sampras—to their knees with his cheeky chip and charge game. Paes didn’t have the power, but he had speed and the knack to find angles. Even though he later transformed into a doubles colossus, Paes claimed his most prized possession in singles, the bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he shared the podium with two Grand Slam champions: Andre Agassi (gold) and Sergei Bruguera (silver). It was India’s first individual Olympic medal since wrestler K.D. Jadhav’s bronze at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Games. Since Paes’ 1996 breakthrough, India has won at least one individual medal at the Olympics.
Son of Dr. Vece Paes, who had won a bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics in hockey, and former captain of the Indian basketball team, Jennifer, Paes was raised in an environment of athletic excellence. “I wouldn’t be, not even 10 per cent of what I am, as a person and an athlete if I didn’t have my parents’ support,” he says. From developing his reflexes early on by letting him play arcade games, to shifting his base to the US and assembling an A-team—complete with physical and mental conditioning professionals—his father made sure he was best prepared for the journey ahead. His training and attitude set him apart at a time when Indian athletes were yet to become serial winners.
“Also, after I won junior Wimbledon, they set the bar higher. After I won US Open junior title, they set the bar again. In 1999, I won two Wimbledons, men’s and mixed doubles, bar went higher. But they kept me re-inventing myself so I could set the bar higher,” he adds.
The sum of it was the most successful tennis player India has ever had. Paes went on to win 18 Grand Slam titles—eight men’s and 10 mixed doubles. He spent 37 weeks as World No. 1 in doubles and 462 weeks inside the top-10. In a career spanning 30 years, he holds the world record for the most number of Olympic Games played by a tennis player (seven) and the most number of wins in doubles in Davis Cup (45). Despite the ups and downs in their partnership, Paes and fellow Indian Mahesh Bhupathi also hold the record for the longest doubles unbeaten streak in Davis Cup: 24.
As the years have passed, Paes’ achievements have acquired a golden hue. Part of that is also because of the sharp decline of Indian tennis. While Paes, Bhupathi and Sania Mirza regularly featured and won Grand Slam titles—albeit in doubles—India last won a championship in 2017, when Rohan Bopanna claimed the mixed doubles title at the French Open. Earlier this year, India was relegated to Group II in Davis Cup for the first time in the history of the premier men’s team event.
“It’s sad to see that kids are not inspired to play tennis anymore,” says Paes, who through his company, Flying Man Ventures, hopes to take sport to the masses. “The solution here is to have a feeder system to the top of the pyramid. We want to take 60 years of my dad's knowledge, 40 years of my knowledge and go throught the country, state by state, programme by programme, and teach these young kids how to excel. In different sports, we will have different technical coaches. You set the system, and magic happens.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.