Reflecting on a stellar career, Indian tennis ace Leander Paes couldn’t help but let his emotions take over.
He admits that he slept with the Olympic bronze medal he won in Atlanta 1996 for a whole year before he allowed it to be taken away from him.
It eventually went to his father Vece Paes, an Olympic bronze medallist himself in hockey, and it now graces the Paes residence in Kolkata.
“The medal sits right next to my dad’s 1972 medal,” Leander Paes said from his home in Mumbai during an Instagram Live session with the Olympic Channel. “I think that's appropriate. It’s been a lifetime of hard work.
“It’s pretty special for me, to have 30 years of playing at the Olympics and emulating my father, it’s been pretty cool,” a teary-eyed Leander Paes said when reminiscing his achievements.
“My friends have been the wins within my wins. That’s probably the reason why I have played for so long. It’s just awesome to play and achieve things for India,” he said, trying to hold back his tears.
Mind over matter to become champion
The son of sportspersons -- his mother Jennifer was captain of the Indian basketball team -- Leander Paes remembered that he was always under pressure to emulate them. And his health problems only made it harder.
"Growing up, I had a micro-valve issue in my heart and a hundred doctors told me I’d never ever play sports,” a stirred up Leander Paes said. “And I always wanted to play at the Olympics.
“It's really about mind over matter. If you want to be great at something you can be. You need a lot of passion, hard work, and great discipline to enable you to be a champion.”
The 46-year-old, who will celebrate his birthday next month, credited his family, particularly his father, for shaping and motivating him over the years.
"He's been my example my whole life. He’s been my example to be the best I can be,” he said about his father Vece, who is now suffering from Parkinson’s. “I wouldn’t have been one per cent of who I am without him.
“Being from the Indian community with a family like this, you learn the responsibility of being an Olympic athlete, the responsibility of playing for 1.3 billion people and motivating people,” he pointed out.
In fact, for a young Leander Paes, it was his father’s Olympic medal that ignited in him a passion for representing India at the Games.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I used to polish my father's Olympic medal every Sunday after church, and I always wondered what that medal was all about,” he recalled. “And I saw the Olympic Angel on it. I saw a pin on it. I saw the wreath I saw the different ribbon that he had.
“And for some reason, that medal attracted me more than any other trophies my dad had. And as I grew a little older, I realized what it meant to represent 1.3 billion people from a country like India.”
Nothing wrong with shedding a tear
For the Paes family, according to the Indian tennis veteran, physical, emotional and mental fitness have always been the key to success. Leander Paes would apply the same tenet in any situation, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that is taking a toll on people’s mental health.
“If you are emotional and if you do have things pent up inside, there's nothing wrong with shedding a tear,” he urged. “There's nothing wrong in leaning on your friends and calling on them when you are emotional.
“In fact, it makes you more of a strong human being, it makes you more of a champion to be able to share your emotions with people,” he said.
The Last Roar and Tokyo 2020
Having decided 2020 was to be his farewell tour, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak, has created doubts about his pre-decided timeline.
On whether or not he will be aiming to compete in the upcoming Games, Leander Paes chose to remain coy about his final decision, reasoning that it was difficult to take a call at this time.
“Tokyo is very poignant because of the fact that I would get to extend the world record for the most number of Olympics played in tennis,” he said. “I’ve always been brought up with my parents to rewrite the history books. So, playing in Tokyo in 2020 was really important.
“Now that is pushed back to 2021. As usual, as with most things in my life, nothing comes easy. And 46, now one month shy of my 47th birthday, I'm going to have to keep myself fit not just physically, because that's the easy part, but emotionally and mentally fit as well.
“I have to revamp my whole thinking, I am going to have to reevaluate and review all the thoughts with my team and make a decision once tennis starts up again.”