Leander Paes enjoys the status of a cult hero in Indian tennis. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: It’s not often that the news of expected retirement of a 46-year-old professional sportsperson can still evoke such strong emotions — but it’s different with Leander Paes. It’s like an enduring act of passion play, spread over 30 years and so many acts, which will eventually come to an end in 2020.

“As I said on social media on the Christmas Day, I will be playing a few select tournaments in my farewell year — travelling with my team and celebrating with all my friends and fans around the globe. Dubai, where I have always enjoyed great support from the Indian diaspora, will certainly be one of my last stops,” the ageless warrior of tennis told Gulf News.

An unique character in the sport with 18 Grand Slam titles and record number of doubles triumphs in Davis Cup, Paes along with Mahesh Bhupathi had always been a crowd favourite at the Dubai Duty Free Championships — the duo winning the men’s doubles here in 1998 and then again Paes pairing up with David Riki to win the title in 2003. The tennis fortnight is scheduled in Dubai from February 17-29 in 2020.

Ever since announcing his #OneLastRoar, as the farewell Tour has been branded, Paes had been planning with his team as to how to make it a memorable experience for his fans worldwide. “The Australian Open will be my first event of the year — where I had made my debut in 1989. In effect, I will be actually playing across five decades — the ‘80s, ‘90s, the new millennium, 2010 decade and now 2020,” Paes noted with a degree of satisfaction.

While the four Grand Slam events are very much in his plans, he has eyes on two events as the crowning glory in the last year of his marathon career — the Davis Cup in March and the Tokyo Olympics — the second one could see his phenomenal eighth appearance in the Summer Games subject to qualification. Answering to a query on the possibility of his qualification, Dr Vece Paes — the player’s father and a rock in his life — was his pragmatic self. “As things stand now, the team of Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan are ahead of Leander in terms of rankings and are likely to form the first team. It depends on the Indian government if they allow two men’s doubles team to participate — as had been the case in recent Olympics. Then there is a question of Leander and his partner getting a wild card,” Dr Paes explained in a telephonic chat.

Leander Paes and Martina Hingis pose with their mixed doubles trophies in Wimbledon in 2015, the last occasion the Indian won a grand slam title. Image Credit: Reuters

It is common knowledge that Paes’ participation in his seventh Olympics in Rio 2016 did not come on a platter — with Bopanna not favourably inclined to his participation while Sania Mirza had also complained to the All India Tennis Association (AITA) for pairing him with Paes for the mixed doubles. It’s anybody’s guess if the prelude to Tokyo sees a recurrence of the drama.

“The retirement decision had to come sometime. The buzz had been going around once he stepped into the 40s, but Leander maintained that he was still enjoying the sport and wanted to carry on. However, in recent times, he had not been able to adhere to the benchmark of success he had set for himself and had slipped down in the rankings (No. 70) and finally a call had to be taken,” Dr Paes said.

Asked how equipped ‘Lee’ would be able to cope with the retirement, given he had always been so passionate about the game, Sr Paes said: “Yes, there is a danger of him feeling the vacuum once he gives up playing tennis professionally. However, he has mentally prepared himself for it for sometime and plans to engage himself in a variety of roles — like playing in occasional events for a cause, acting as a motivational speaker for corporates — something he is so good at. He also plans to take up golf as amateur and do commentary for tennis as well as football.”

Paes’ high points

Won the junior Wimbledon and junior US Open before turning professional in 1991

Defeated Fernando Meligeni to win the bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

Awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour given by the Indian government, in 1996

He has won 18 Grand Slam titles in all, eight in men’s doubles and the remaining 10 in mixed doubles. His last Grand Slam title was the mixed doubles crown, alongside Martina Hingis, in the 2015 US Open

In 1999, he reached the final of all four Grand Slams alongside Mahesh Bhupathi. They won the French Open and Wimbledon that year and reached the world No. 1 doubles ranking.

Paes & Bhupathi have a Davis Cup record for the longest winning streak in doubles with 24 straight wins.