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Leander Paes continues to defy age

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. For a man who once beat a young Roger Federer in Indian Wells qualifying and wona singles bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, it has been some journey.

“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. “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,” he added. Paes has no plans to stop any time soon, especially with the Tokyo Olympics coming up next year.

Paes 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.”

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.”

Meanwhile, from walking out on a ‘lucky loser’ spot at the French Open last year, to walking into a Grand Slam for the first time, by merit of his world rank of 86, Prajnesh Gunneswaran has come a long way. After winning the Asian Games bronze last year, which saw him miss the US Open, Prajnesh did well to qualify for the Australian Open this season. But, it is special to be eligible for a Grand Slam, which guarantees about $50,000 for a first-round entrant.

On the eve of the French Open in Paris, where he is scheduled to meet the 92nd-ranked Marco Dellien of Bolivia in the third match of the day on Court No. 13, the Chennai left-hander stressed that nothing had happened overnight. It took patience and conviction to get the results and status on the professional Tour. “I am quite happy with my progress. I made a conscious effort to switch to more Challengers so that I could adjust to that level. It took some time, but I eventually started to get the results. It didn’t happen overnight,” said Prajnesh, who was ranked a career-best 75 recently.

Unfortunately, Prajnesh lost the first-round clash of the French Open. Despite a 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 defeat, Prajnesh was keen to look at the positives after struggling with a shoulder injury in the build-up to the tournament. “It's definitely a milestone,” he said. “I've worked a long time to get to this place and obviously I would've liked a different result today. But it's not the end of the world and I just have to keep getting better, put my head down and keep working. That's what got me this far and I'm hoping that it will continue,” he said.

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