This past weekend, as majority of tennisdom vented and raged against the listlessness of player strength in the Davis Cup first-round ties, it was a different storyline emerging from the Indian team whose senior-most member was on the cusp of overtaking a long-standing Davis Cup record.

Ultimately, Leander Paes’s bid to go past the fabled Nicola Pietrangali as the player to have won the most number of doubles rubbers was halted by New Zealand’s Artem Sitak and Michael Venus on Saturday. For the 43-year-old, who has seen his fair share of ups and downs over the course of the 26 years he has been around in the tennis circuit, the wait, however, connoted yet another opportunity for him to and try achieve the milestone.

A professional career rife with records and legacies

“You know, playing for the country is something I love, something I enjoy [and] something I have done for many years,” remarked a visibly unperturbed Paes in his chat with following Saturday’s defeat. “So, whenever I am called to play for my country, I will put my best foot forward. That being said, I am on the threshold of a world record, a huge record for India. I really hope I get a chance to do that.”

With controversy dotting Paes’s selection into the team for their tie against New Zealand and vagueness clouding his future in the squad, the latter portion of his rationale had to be emphasised. And, while one has to wait until the announcement of the final team roster for the next Davis Cup tie – between India and Uzbekistan, in April – for confirmation about Paes’s potential inclusion, in the eventuality that this last tie turns out to be his decreed swansong in the team-based tournament, it will go on to say a lot about his adaptability. Of not only being a regular participant in Davis Cup ties amid the gruelling ATP schedule, but doing equally well in the two formats, which have had digressing paths as far as the rules of the game are concerned.

Where ATP-mandated doubles fixtures have had their scoring system modified, the ITF-governed Davis Cup still continues to uphold the traditional system, except for a couple of changes instituted in the last handful of years. Though these do seem like a hard act to get accustomed to, the Kolkata-native personally, however, considers them to be just another addition in the cache of resources that he, as a sportsperson is expected to have.

According to Paes, “I think the most important part of a professional athlete’s life is to adapt to situations. I think, for some of us who have been able to achieve excellence, we have been able to achieve that excellence because we have been able to adapt ourselves. [And] when you have achieved that excellence once, when you have achieved that excellence twice [and] when you have achieved it five-10 times, you suddenly find a way to adapt yourself to any situation. The most important thing for me, as a student of life is, to adapt myself to the situation on hand to get the right success I want. It’s easier that way.”

Continuing on the same vein, the 18-time Grand Slam champion went on to correlate the aspect of preparation with adaptability for sustained continuity in the sport. “My job is to be the best of my ability everyday. So, achieving excellence is not a one-time thing for me. I have done it, maybe 20-25 times. So, it’s a lifestyle,” elaborated Paes, before saying, “If lifestyle is healthy, if fitness lifestyle is healthy, if diet lifestyle is healthy, if sleep-pattern lifestyle is healthy, technical training is healthy and fitness training is healthy, then it’s not rocket-science. You will achieve success. So, opportunities [will] keep coming and as long as you are prepared for it, you will achieve success.”

"I think the most important part of a professional athlete’s life is to adapt to situations," said Paes (Image credit: AFP)

The next chapter for Indian singles tennis

Speaking of success, a raging debate about the Indian tennis construct is regarding the paradigm of effectual singles presence to represent the nation in the singles draw across all tournaments. However, though the topic focuses solely on the lack of an in-depth field, there’s seldom any offering on potentially reconciling this absence. Paes, who is the first – and so far, the last – Indian player to have won an Olympic medal for India in singles, believes that despite there not being any dearth of talent in the country, the system of training is missing out on having one centre where all such tennis prodigies can be nurtured in the right manner.

Explaining further, the former junior Wimbledon and US Open winner pointed out that the nation was also losing out on players in the transitional phase between the juniors and seniors because of the high infrastructural cost necessitated by the sport.

“In India, we can be 15, 16 [and] 17 years old and win on the world stage. The talented youngsters that shine in the juniors can be Australian Open champions, Wimbledon champions, US Open champions [and] Asian champions,” stated Paes, giving a much-evident example of the Indian juniors dominating the circuit, only to have a sporadic presence in the mainstay of the seniors’ tournaments.

“But at 18, you are not playing juniors anymore. At 19, you are playing against guys in the professional leagues who are 24 [or] 34, [and] who are real rugged. So, to put bread and butter on the table at the age of 18 becomes a responsibility. To pay for your coaching becomes a responsibility. To travel in the world becomes a responsibility. When you are a junior, the associations are looking after the expenses. At 18, you are looking for sponsorships. Hard-core, you are looking for money. And if you don’t have the money, you want to take a job that can put food on the table.”

The key to bridge this gap between the availability and fostering of quality tennis players, Paes believes, is by coming up with an effectual mutual give-and-take between the sport’s association at its various levels and the players. And an optimal way to do so would be to provide encouragement through financial assistance to the tennis players as they try to break into the professional realm.

In the words of the former world No. 1 then, “Most team sports in India look after contracts for their athletes, be it hockey, be it cricket [or] be it football. Individual sports associations [should look at] contracting their players. [This would] mean one, the players are loyal to the association; two, there’s a direct interaction between the players and association and; three, the associations can show that they are paying a quantum to the players. Also, this can be offset by saying when the players earn, they reimburse the associations back.”