Leander Paes currently finds himself in a weird inter-zone. For the seven-time Olympian, this season was about shaping up for a record eighth appearance in July, just over a month after turning 47, and filling in the contours for a life outside competitive sport. Now, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics postponed by a year, his present reality as an athlete in the midst of his final swing and his immediate future as a retired sportsperson are suddenly inter-meshed.
“It’s very tough. I have trained specifically for this season, just like most other athletes and all of us are having to deal with this shift and movement,” Paes tells ESPN. “When we head into a competition like the Olympics, athletes try to, what we call, find our zone. The rhythm that we need coming to an Olympics consists of tremendous training and a lot of competition. April was already gone and we didn’t know how many more months we would lose. So Japan and the IOC must be commended for taking such a tough decision with billions of dollars at stake. The Olympics is a massive movement and to postpone the Games is a really brave call.”
The decision to wait out a year, lengthen his professional career to limber up to another edition of the Olympics before he walks away is one that the 18-time Grand Slam title winner says he is still tossing over. His heart, though, appears to be ahead of him. “It’s a decision me and my team are thinking about very hard. My dad has been vociferous in wanting to push me to play longer. He knows me well. He knows once I retire, I’m done. There’s not going to be a return.
The fitness is still there, so is the mental aptitude and the tennis. I just have to focus on adjusting my training regime now that there’s going to be a long hiatus. This time I have might allow me a refreshed look at this. I haven’t taken a long, hard look at it yet. My team’s at me. They tell me I’ve really got to play that record eighth Olympics and put India in the history books. We’ve been working every day to stay fit and healthy and watch our diet and be careful of not just losing the fitness I’ve worked on already, but also enhance my fitness. We will make a decision shortly on whether to continue and make this one last roar, a really long roar.”
In the time he has now, with competitions and whole calendars chewed up by the pandemic, Paes says he’s trying to be ‘innovative’. “I’ve chosen this time that I’m at home to actually amp up my skills in using technology to create community meetings from home, through email, video-conferences and all of the multiple modes and I’m working very hard at it. I’m also looking at my post-tennis career and the various commitments I’m already tied up with. I have a 75-year-old father and a 13-year-old daughter at home and just from travelling 40-45 weeks a year to now actually look after things I need to take care of at home, is another sort of transition.”