'Blessed' Paes closing in on fourth decade as pro and 1,000 racquets
Indian veteran Leander Paes says he feels "blessed" to have had such a long career, as he closes in on his fourth decade as a professional, having accumulated 18 Grand Slam doubles titles and an impressive racquet collection.
Paes continued to defy his years on Friday, two weeks before his 46th birthday, winning his opening doubles match alongside in-form Frenchman Benoit Paire as he goes in search of fifth Roland Garros trophy.
For a man who once beat a young Roger Federer in Indian Wells qualifying and won singles bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, it has been some road.
"I've been around for 30 years, I've been around a long time. I've seen 12 generations. I've seen guys like (Pete) Sampras here, I've seen guys like (Pat) Rafter," he said at the French Open.
"Tennis has been a beautiful journey for me, I've been very blessed to have such a long career. Especially here, to win this four times."
Paes has no plans to stop any time soon, especially with the Tokyo Olympics coming up next year.
He has already appeared at seven Games, more than any other Indian and any other tennis player.
"It (the Olympics) is a long ways away. I've already got the world record at the Olympics. Now to push it up one more would be amazing," he added.
"But I've got a lot of hard work to do between now and then because it's almost 15 months away -- I'm not counting though."
- Respect of locker room -
Paes, whose father also won an Olympic bronze medal in field hockey in 1972, says even the best players in the world are still sometimes taken aback by his longevity.
"I think in the locker room I have this respect," he said.
"I was just coming back and Rafa (Nadal) and Uncle Toni (Nadal's former coach) were walking in and Uncle Toni was like, 'Leo, you're 46?' I said 'Oui'. You played for the first time at Roland Garros in 1989 (juniors)? In 1989 you played?'. I said 'Oui'. 'I saw you won the first set, did you win?' 'Oui'.
"He said 'woah, it's incredible. Hey Rafa, 46 years old and he's still playing and winning'.
"For me, this is beautiful, because Rafa is one of the greatest of all time. Toni is one of the great tennis minds of all time.
"And to have the relationship I have with all the players, to have the respect from all the locker room, it takes many years of hard work."
- Nearly one thousand racquets -
Paes has played with some illustrious names down the years, and a tradition of swapping racquets with his partners has seen him garner an amazing collection.
"I have a collection of close to 1,000 racquets. I have Rod Laver's, I have a lot of the champions' -- Federer, Nadal, (Novak) Djokovic, Andy (Murray), (Martina) Navratilova I played with a lot. Serena, Venus, Hingis...
"Wooden ones going back to Bjorn Borg's. My first racquet, I have."
He will surely still have chances to add even more big names to that list, revealing he has added power to his serve in only the last two years to keep up with the young guns by stepping up his training regime.
"The game has evolved so much that I've reinvented myself maybe 11, 12, 13, 14 times," added Paes, who tells a story of Australian legend Rod Laver showing him how to get bigger forearms when Paes was just 12.
"I've just come from the gym. I played a match, and now I've just come from the gym to do my work, because for me, if I play, I play to be the best in the world, to win.
"I play for fun, but I play to win. To play against guys who are 20 years younger than me is not easy."
Opponents 20 years younger than Paes are small fry in reality -- players as young as 19 were in this year's French Open doubles draw.
It's that kind of statistic that has current partner Paire in awe of the Indian.
"He's very old," joked the Frenchman.
"But it's not easy to play with a good player like this, because I want to do my best, and sometimes when I miss, I say, Okay, if you play with someone better than me maybe he will win more."
? 2019 AFP