‘Sumit Nagal needs more weapons, supreme fitness’ – Leander Paes

File photo of tennis legend Leander Paes.

Leander Paes is a man with many hats, and he loves donning each one of them. When he is not busy striking winners in the doubles circuit, the 46-year-old finds time to guide and fine-tune the skills of younger players on the ATP Tour, be it India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan or Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The 18-time Grand Slam champion is also the co-owner of Mumbai Leon Army, a franchise in the Tennis Premier League, which is an eight-team event featuring Indian players that will be held here in December. In the city on Sunday to pick his side at the auctions, the tennis legend spoke to Hindustan Times about how he has been playing just for himself lately and why he saw Sumit Nagal’s breakthrough season coming. Excerpts:

You’ve been juggling between playing on the Tour as well as mentoring young talent. How much are you enjoying it?

I’m loving it. I think the uniqueness of the family I grew up in—a mother who was the captain of the basketball team, a father who is a sports medicine doctor and was an Olympic hockey champion, while I play tennis—is that we stand for fitness, health and achievement. Helping out the young boys and girls comes naturally to me, whether it’s in the Davis Cup or on the Tour.

You’re still playing and also helping youngsters do the same on the Tour. How much does the latter help you keep you going at this age?

The last few years on the Tour have been more enjoyable because I’ve been playing for myself. I’m playing because I love and am very passionate about my tennis. When I first started out, it was about putting bread and butter on the table. You’ve got to earn your next flight ticket, your hotel room, your next coaching fees. But after I started winning a little, my ambitions changed: let’s win an Olympic medal, then let’s win one Grand Slam, then win a second and a third. And then, once you complete a career Grand Slam in doubles, career Grand Slam in mixed doubles, win an Olympic medal in singles, you can finally sit back and say, ‘I can now play for myself’. I can now play because I love pushing my mind and body at 46 to keep being the best I can be. That’s the fun part, really.

So you mean it’s easier to motivate yourself now than before because you’re enjoying it more?

Well, it’s harder, actually. At 46, to take on someone who is 20 or 30 years old, it’s challenging. Because the volume of effort it takes now to get the same results has changed. Before, I could put in four-hour days and get the results. In my 30s, if I put in six-hour days, I’d get my results. Today, I have to put in 12-hour days. It’s about changing your whole lifestyle; you can’t just go and eat whatever you want. Having Bengali roots, I just can’t go and enjoy a dish of gulab jamoons or rosogollas or mishtis. My training regime, my rehab, my recovery takes a lot more time now. I’m lucky that I have the knowledge of 30 years and a father who has done it for 50 years. So, I know what has to be done and how, but it takes a lot of time and effort.

Is 2020 Tokyo Olympics one of them?

That’s what I’m working on right now. Normally every year as soon as the US Open finishes, I spend October and November setting my goals. Once that’s done, I start off-season training in December. So, right now, I’m setting goals: what’s next, what can I play for now, what else is there to achieve, what else can I realistically go after? But, can I play in Tokyo? Of course, I’ll be ready.

Sumit Nagal has had a great season, both in terms of rankings and results. Has his steep rise this year surprised you?

No. I saw Sumit way back when he was training in Toronto and I was practicing with him. One of Sumit’s best shots is one of my weaker shots–the backhand. And I kept on practicing with him, checking his backhand and learning from him: how he steps forward, how he keeps moving ahead, how he keeps himself down. I could see how much talent the young boy had. After you win a junior doubles title (Nagal won 2015 Wimbledon boys’ doubles title), you’ve got to perform. And Sumit has kept on persevering. It’s not easy, especially with the amount of expense and hardships on the Tour.

I have massive respect for people who work hard, because I’ve been through it myself, sleeping in locker rooms and things like that. Another player who I have immense respect for is Ankita (Raina), who has kept going. For me, she is one of the fittest athletes that we have in India across all sports. Now, we need our boys and girls to go out there and win.

So what do guys like Nagal and Prajnesh Gunneswaran have to do to be consistent and remain in the top 100-150 of the rankings?

Keep honing their weapons. Prajnesh has got a big leftie serve, and he’s got to make it bigger. Fitness becomes huge. Sumit is not as tall as Prajnesh, so he has to work harder on his fitness. Sumit has to create more weapons and keep his body supremely fit. The mindset is huge as well, for you are all alone out there. So, sublime fitness, mental toughness, peace, decision-making and leadership qualities are the prerequisites.