India's tennis ace Leander Paes does not keep a count of his awards. But he is more than happy to make an exception when something like the Padma Bhushan comes around.
The country's highest Grand Slam-winner (14 titles - eight men's doubles, six mixed doubles) Paes will be receiving the highest civilian award for distinguished service of high order from president Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan today.
The 40-year-old former India Davis Cup captain, who is also a recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Arjuna Awards, is emotional about the occasion.
"Normally, we tennis players are so busy traveling through the year on the Tour that we hardly get any time to sit back and think about awards and accolades, but I admit that this one is special. The Padma Bhushan is not about one Tour final or one Tour title or one Grand Slam or one medal - it's about the 30 years of hard work that I have put in. It's about my entire life," Paes told mid-day last evening while boarding his Mumbai-Delhi flight.
Paes and national badminton coach Pullela Gopichand are the two sportspersons selected for the Padma Bhushan, while cricketer Yuvraj Singh, squash player Dipika Pallikal, former Indian women's cricket captain Anjum Chopra, Sunil Dabas (kabaddi), Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu and Mamta Sodha (mountaineering), H Boniface Prabhu (wheel chair tennis) have been picked for the Padma Shri award.
Dominance in 90s
Paes is India's most successful tennis player. Besides achieving domination in the Davis Cup doubles with compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi, medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, he also remains India's only tennis medalist at the Olympics (bronze at Atlanta 1996). Paes-Bhupathi went on to rule the world in doubles in the 90s.
Paes said he'd like to dedicate the Padma Bhushan to all his Indian fans, who have stood by him through thick and thin. "I'm grateful to my father (Vece Paes), my family and my team that works with me throughout the year across the globe. But most importantly, I owe this one to my Indian fans, who supported me especially in 2012, when my dream of winning another Olympic medal was taken away from me (Paes was forced to partner rookie Vishnu Vardhan at the London Olympics when Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna turned down the All-India Tennis Association's original selection of either player teaming up with Paes for the men's doubles event. Bhupathi-Bopanna claimed that they were not available for selection individually as they had teamed up together at the start of the season with a view to participating in the Olympics together).
'Grateful to my fans'
"I was distraught then and had even mulled pulling out of the Olympics - it was my sixth Olympic Games mind you - but eventually my fans rallied and urged me not to give up my dream and so I played. I'm grateful to them for whatever I have achieved and all that I strive to achieve in the world of tennis," explained Paes, who won his 14th Grand Slam at the US Open last year.
The six-time Olympian however, is far from done. "I'll sit back and look at all my awards once I retire, which I hope is still distant. For now, my target is Roger Federer's mark of 17 Grand Slams. It's achievable... I'm just three away and this honour will only motivate me to strive harder," he signed off.