Tennis star Leander Paes explains how the unprecedented lockdown has been a big blow to not just the tennis world but also young Indian talents such as Ankita Raina, Rutuja Bhosale and Sowjanya Bavisetti. Excerpts:
Q. In your long and illustrious career, have you seen a scenario like this where literally nothing has been happening?
A. It’s definitely an unprecedented period where all of us have to maintain certain
amount of hygiene, social distancing and yet oneness to fight the common enemy, Covid-19. I think in these times we are also pushed to reinvent ourselves to find new ways to earn living, to entertain people, to use digital space, to make difference in the world. I think as role models and as sportspersons, it’s our job to keep everybody motivated and entertained, and also to show them how we can reinvent ourselves.
Q. How has it been for you to be confined at home? How do you see the world tennis coping with it?
A. It has not been an easy time, as I am used to travelling 40 weeks a year to play matches. As for tennis, I am so proud of our girls who have qualified for the Fed Cup for the main group. But I believe the year 2020 is already over for tennis. I do not think Wimbledon will happen this year, I am not even sure about the US Open. The Olympics has already been pushed to 2021.
Q. How has Covid-19 hit sportsperson financially?
A. The lockdown has hit us hard. While we don’t have a fixed, salary, we do have
annual expenses of around Rs 3-3.5 crore on travelling, coaching, equipment and accommodation. With sports in a standstill, we are out of pocket. It’s a very hard profession; in an individual sport, you do not have a guaranteed salary. And, that’s why the importance of the reinvention to find other ways to earn a living comes into place.
Q. How are you reinventing yourself?
I have been doing webinars. I am also planning to go out and motivate the corporate world, to show them how emotional fitness is as important as the physical one. I know as far as the tennis fraternity goes, there are a lot of boys and girls who come together and do fitness at 5 pm every day; they share train-
ing secrets. I haven’t gone out to share my secrets yet, but I plan to do it now, thanks to the lockdown.
I will share my secrets soon with Purav Raja, my doubles partner, who is doing ‘Chai with Raja’. He has invited a few of us and is actually interviewing us in a quirky, unique way. I know that Mahesh (Bhupathi) and I are going to have some fun in next couple of days; we have come together to spread happiness and to show how friendship goes a long way. It’s a nice way to show the world how in a tough time we all can come together.
Q. Do you think it is possible to have tournaments without spectators at the stadium?
A. Yes, I believe that’s an option. It’s anyway going to be difficult to fill up stadiums
post the lockdown. I believe 2020 is already gone for us; we should now plan for 2021 whether it is the Australian Open in January or other events thereafter.
Q. How can young, talented players deal with the crisis when there are no games happening in the world?
A. Yes, we have several young talents in India. We have Ankita Raina, we have Rutuja Bhosale and Sowjanya Bavisetti, and we young athletes who have just started their career. The Covid-19 outbreak is a big blow for them. It has come at a time when momentum was on their side. But I think we sportspersons are trained to reinvent ourselves, we are trained for hard times. I slept in locker rooms because I didn’t have enough money in 1991. So, we athletes have a resilience to rebound.
Q. What’s your gut instinct telling you at this point of time: Are you feeling safer here in India seeing the chaos around the world?
A. The whole world is going through this pandemic. It’s a very tough position for any government to be in. We have seen what happened in Italy. I have got my niece who lives in Italy with a little child. I have got a nephew who lives in Spain with a little child. I have got a sister in California. I have got a mother who is living in Kolkata alone. It’s a global pandemic and affecting us all. I have already lost 15 friends in the last five weeks because of Covid-19. My father lost his best friend due to this virus.
I believe that everyone has to take up the responsibility to keep our community safe. We have to follow social distancing, maintain proper hygiene, and we have to look after our staff and the poor people around us. We need to come together as a global community at this difficult time.
Q. Where is the ray of hope in all this?
A. I believe in humanity. We have successfully come out of World War I, we have faced World War II, we have gone through the Spanish Flu, we have defeated the Ebola virus. So, I believe we have to come together as a global community to fight as one. All of us have to take this as a responsibility to support each other and fight the pandemic together.