BENGALURU -- Leander Paes is followed by a GoPro camera into the media lounge. He's wearing his final season fever on his t-shirt with #OneLastRoar blazoned across it. He knows the drill well - the questions that await, what his answers should be, and what the next morning's sport page headlines would read like. He's done it a million times before. This time, he promises, will be his last on a home court. At 46, an age at which most professional sportspersons are either looking for airtime through commentary stints, coaching a gaggle of young players or have long been forgotten, Paes is talking about his week ahead on the Challenger tour in Bengaluru.
"I feel my body is fit and mind still fresh," he says. "Every year I look for new goals and the last 3-4 years there is nothing else to play for. I enjoy the lifestyle of tennis, that's why I'm still playing. But travelling 30 weeks a year is very hard. I find there are other opportunities in life which are exciting me a lot more now, whether it is an autobiography, biopic or business of sport or sports education."
Ranked 124 in the world, the 18-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic bronze medallist has announced this season to be his last and is fighting his body's call to stop and his mind's voice to push himself for another tournament. This season is off to a slow burn, with him losing in the second round of the mixed doubles competition alongside Jelena Ostapenko at the Australian Open and a quarterfinal finish at the Maharashtra Open together with partner Mathew Ebden. He'd earlier announced the ATP 250 series event in Pune last week as his final tournament appearance in India before he had a change of heart and decided to clobber himself with another week's play.
"Every time I step on the court, I feel like it may be my last match," he adds. "It's going to go on throughout the year. I feel like playing in the Grand Slams, hopefully the Olympics and ATP Tour. I know if I wanted to play another 2-3 years, I could. But my team has disintegrated at the moment. My travelling coach has a baby girl going to school and my tennis coach is back home because his daughter is going to college. Travelling alone is no fun after 20 years of doing it."
Stacking 767 tour-level doubles wins and 54 tour-level doubles titles, Paes has won a tour-level trophy every year between 1997 and 2015, with his last one coming in Auckland five years ago. "This season," he says, "I want to play in places that mean something to me." He last turned out in Bengaluru during the Davis Cup tie against Serbia in 2014. Holding the record for the most number of doubles wins at 44, Paes has been named in the six-member Davis Cup squad for India's away tie against Croatia in March. The Pakistan tie in November thrust him back under spotlight after a fleeting Davis Cup wilderness that lasted little more than a year.
Beyond most other things, the temptation to lengthen his stay on the tour is a constant stab. One that he wakes up to every day. "My whole team is trying to convince me to continue. My dad gets up every morning and checks with my team if I've done my fitness drills. But I think there is a time and place for everything and this whole year is a journey for me also. It's about celebrating this 30-year career that I've had. Just like in tennis, I've built teams for telling my story. There is one writing my book, and another one working on my documentary series, delving into the nuances of what has taken a young Indian boy from Calcutta to become who I am today."
Paes' team member with the GoPro camera positions himself in the front row. He began following Paes around since the start of this season at the Australian Open and accompanied him to Pune last week. In the final season, every inch of footage is vital. This could be only a filament, though, when chronicling a career that's spanned decades and generations of tennis players for a documentary series that's likely to hit a streaming platform by the end of the year.
Paes' first tour overseas as a 17-year-old, fresh out of the junior circuit, was an unforgiving six weeks on the road in biting, Wolfsburg cold. Broke and with no place to stay, he slept and showered in the locker room, rolling up a towel as a pillow, spreading one on the floor and using another one as a cover. Midway through the Challenger series, he even considered running back home to India but decided to soldier on. He's ended up lasting a record seven Olympics, making him the first Indian and only tennis player to do so and he carries hopes of turning it into an even eight this year.
But now that the finish line is in sight, Paes struggles to reconcile with an ending. Arguably among India's greatest ever sportspersons, he's always worn his heart, emotion and love for the sport on his sleeve. "I know it will all come to an end one day," he chokes, "the music will fall silent," his voice quivers, as he pauses to collect himself and a tear rolls down his right cheek. "It's been a special journey and this tour is my way of saying 'thank you'."