‘They’re tampering with the ball in tennis now’

DENNIS MENDES meets 29-year-old LEANDER PAES, the son of hockey great Vecce Paes, and talks about his career, involving youngsters and the romance that is in the air...

You have been attending sports felicitation functions and guiding youngsters more than ever before. Children look at you as a father figure. How do you adjust this image with the fact that you are still a competitor at the international level?
I believe children need the right advice and encouragement, something we didn't have during our time. Nothing gives me more pleasure than correcting somebody's technique and helping him get results. At the same time, when I am out there in the middle I am back at the player level. I always give my 100 per cent for myself and for my country. Very soon children may even start calling me Leander uncle, but I don't think I will really mind.

Last week you were at the Garden Tennis Academy finals, Azad Maidan, as chief guest and you talked of tennis being a vehicle. Vehicle for what?
Definitely. Tennis is a vehicle for healthy relationships and building character. It is through the game that you gain recognition, don't you agree? If I am here today it is because of my tennis. Tennis being an international game takes you to so many countries, you come across so many people, people of all shades and kind, and you learn to deal with them at their levels. In that sense, tennis helps you to bridge gaps.

We don't have much following for local tennis in India. People don't watch local tennis, except for players themselves and their parents and officials. Do you have a solution for that?
Sponsorship plays a great role in encouraging youth. Parents and organisers can put together a tournament, but it is the sponsors who are the soul of the championship. There may not be much viewership at the venue, but a lot of people would like to watch an event in their living rooms on the TV. As sponsorship is usually linked to television coverage, a wide viewership can be built. And then, gradually, we could see the rise of outstanding players, those who have been above average. When that happens, any sports lover would go watch him, whether at the venue or at on television. If am I am playing a game tomorrow, people would be interested in watching how I perform. This wouldn't have been the case some 15 years ago. A player needs to make a mark before be can pull the crowd. But as I was saying, passion alone is not enough. There must be financial back-up.

How would you assess you performance in 2001?
It's been great. Lisa and I entered the mixed doubles final at the US Open, and I nearly had another Grand Slam title under my belt. We have done well in the Davis Cup. I have played okay in singles, and Mahesh Bhupathi and I have come back in tandem. What happened in Bangkok recently was unfortunate. Overall, it has been a great year. My points position went up from 115 to 280, and my doubles ranking has stayed at number 4. Now I am preparing for the Tata Open later this month in Chennai. Then there is the Australian Open.

You have been talking of playing for the country. But you have played mixed with doubles with a foreigner. How do you look at it?
Playing for the country is different from playing as a professional. When I play in the Davis Cup or the Olympics I am playing for the country, but when I am playing in the professional circuit I am playing there as a professional. When I play with Lisa that has nothing to do with nationalities. I even changed my doubles partner, Mahesh had opted for Mustafa Ghouse in Bangkok. But ultimately one would like to give his best anywhere. Personally, my Olympics bronze medal means much more to me than any Grand Slam medal. I wouldn't exchange it for the earth.

The Grand Slam officials are thinking of changing the size of the balls. Is it to slowdown the serve and rallies for spectators' convenience?
Yes. But that is a sad thing. Actually they have been trying it too. At one Grand Slam they will change the size of the ball, at another they change the texture and so on. They shouldn't be doing this. They are tampering with the ball in tennis now. As long as sponsors don't mind, it seems okay. Personally I have no hassles, although I have given it a lot of thought. By now I have got used to these changes, and I suppose quite a few top players actually don't mind it, although they will not readily welcome it.

How inspirational has been your achievement in tennis?
I see many young people playing tennis all over the country, although mostly in clubs. I am very happy to see so many youngsters engaged in it in Mumbai. I think nowhere in India is there such a craze. I cannot say how many people have taken the cue from my successes. Obviously none, because we haven't seen any player excel at the international level. But I am more concerned about children, and I am pleased that they recognise me. In them I see a future champion. That is the age when they learn. That's why I teach them. A child is like a piece of sponge. They accommodate whatever you tell them, correct or incorrect. It is very important that we bring them up on the right lines.

You are frequently being seen in Mumbai. Have you decided to be a son-in-law here?
I happen to have a lot of time to be in Mumbai. And this when I am planning an important phase of my life. In fact, just this evening Mahima Chowdhury and I have planned to go to the Bombay Gymkhana. I am very happy and thrilled to be in love.

So when is the big day?
I can't say. For the moment that's an ace.