Meet Sanjay Singh, the force behind Leander Paes’ glorious run-Sports News , Justnewsday
For close to three decades, Sanjay Singh was a permanent sight in seven-time Olympian Leander Paes’ corner. Now settled in the US and training the women’s pair of Luisa Stefani and Hayley Carter, Singh looks back at his long career and his incredible relationship with Paes.
It is 8 am on a May morning in Rome and Sanjay Singh peeps from his iPhone with his infectious smile and ready charm. If one hasn’t checked the scores, there’s no way to know that his wards – the women’s doubles pair of Luisa Stefani and Hayley Carter – have lost their second-round Italian Open match in straight sets just the previous day. This ability to accept results and move on has been the cornerstone of Singh’s distinguished career in professional tennis that has seen him patching up the game and body of one of the icons of Indian sports.
Thirty-one years back, three defining words from a 16-year old changed Singh’s life. “I need you,” said Leander Paes simply and convincingly to Singh, then a chance physiotherapist. An enduring relationship followed, resulting in an Olympic bronze, 18 Grand Slams, and a clutch of Davis Cup highs.
Singh’s association with Paes happened under the most fortuitous circumstance. The Indian team was training in the DLTA courts in New Delhi ahead of their Davis Cup tie against Great Britain in 1990. Singh, who used to coach at the academy, strolled across to the Indian courts and found out that Ramesh Krishnan needed stretching.
Krishnan’s physio was yet to reach the venue – he was stuck with his punctured scooter – and Singh decided to pitch in. With his elementary knowledge in massage therapy and basic hands-on experience at the health club of The Lalit, where he used to then work, Singh attended to Krishnan’s cramping body and impressed him enough to be instantly drafted into the Indian team.
Despite his best efforts to dissuade Krishnan and quietly flee the scene, Singh found himself sharing a room with Paes in the team hotel. Instantly, he was enamoured by Paes’ good manners and desire to learn. Ten days later, when Paes told him he wanted Singh by his side, he couldn’t say no.
Enter Dr Vece Paes. The former hockey Olympian (1972 Munich Games) and a sports medicine expert took Singh under his wings and explained to him the nitty gritties of an athlete’s body. The importance of decent recovery protocols was drilled into him early, and with time, Singh also did a course in the myofascial release from Michigan. Simply put, it is a therapy used to reduce tension and tightness from tissues surrounding muscles throughout the body. Without a degree in physiotherapy, Singh discovered the pain points in Paes’ body and ways to put him back on his feet.
It helped that Paes understood his body too. “It is very important for an athlete to understand his/her body. Paes would never take even the slightest of pain lightly. He would tell me of every little stiffness and I would address the issue through long massage sessions,” he said.
Singh would also use these massage sessions to casually slip in vital technical inputs to Paes. “A lot of times, an athlete tends to ignore things that a coach says. I used to pick such instructions from coaches and share them with Paes on the massage table. He was always very receptive.”
Impressed with his approach and technical know-how, Paes pushed Singh to attend ATP coaches’ meetings. The idea exchange and knowledge-sharing at such conferences acted as a force multiplier for Singh, who now has coaching certifications from International Tennis Federation (ITF) and USPTR (United States Professional Tennis Registry). The transition from physio to coach was seamless.
The acceptance though was hard to find. Barbs such as “he is only a physio”, “his only job is to lift Paes’ kit bag” flew thick and fast, but Singh was unmoved. “As long as Paes knew what I was doing, I was fine. Such cheap shots never fazed me,” he remembered.
Federation politics, Singh alleges, caused him to miss the crowning glory of Paes’ glittering career. “You know how things work in India. I don’t want to revisit the details, but I couldn’t travel with Paes to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics,” he says.
Paes though was in regular touch with Singh who did his best to boost the morale of his ward as he steadily progressed in the medal round.
“Soon after winning the bronze, he called me from his hotel and told me, ‘Dada, now suddenly a lot of people will jump to be my friends or coaches.’ We just laughed,” Singh recalled.
As Paes’ career leapt decades, Singh customised his training plans to suit the demands of an ageing and depleting body. Long-distance road runs were junked for short sprints and speed biking. In fact, Singh’s evolution over the years is intricately intertwined with the rise of Paes from a precocious teenager who wowed all and sundry on his Davis Cup debut in Chandigarh, to the veritable time machine that simply refuses to stop.
“As the body begins to age, you can’t really go for road running as it puts a lot of stress on your ankles, knees, and lower back. So we moved to swimming and short sprint work on the tennis court with thick resistance bands. These 10-15 second drills with bands are very important in tennis as they train you for short bursts of explosive speed.
“Then, we started sand training. Whatever workout we did, I made it a point that Paes does it on sand because it is easy on the knee and lower back and the lack of solid base makes the workout tougher. Leander used to come up with new ideas too and we would discuss them openly. Then, I started paying extra attention to his recovery. Each session was followed by long massages to get the lactic acid out. I combined Swedish and Myofascial techniques for optimum recovery.
“As you grow old, your muscle training changes. The older you grow, the stiffer the body becomes, which means you need to stretch more. In tennis, we don’t do a lot of weights, because we want the arms to be flexible. The more flexible you are, the faster is the swing. Take the example of an iron catapult and the one made of rubber. Which will be easier to use? The game has become a lot more power-based, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a bodybuilder. You cannot be strong and not be flexible in tennis. There will be a number of injuries if you’re not flexible. We train core and legs a lot because that is where power comes from, not from the upper body,” he explains.
Singh is officially no longer part of Paes’ contingent, but he insists his “brother” is only a phone call away. In a country obsessed with stars, people like Singh silently plough on, only to be conveniently consigned to the backburner. He is not complaining though.
“Being with Paes has taught me a lot about life. I am yet to come across a more disciplined, dedicated, and hardworking person in my life. More than friends, we are brothers now.
“In India, people have a strange mindset. They don’t respect you or your intelligence, and there’s a lot of backbiting. I am happily settled in the US now, and I have no regrets or malice. I am very satisfied with my life, and I’ll forever be grateful to Leander Paes for picking me out of nowhere and giving me the life that I have now.”
Having had a successful career and now settled in the US for five years, Singh’s only regret is the lack of respect for coaches in India.
“There is a lot of back-stabbing and backbiting, and there is no respect for coaches. People here are quick to judge and insult. They don’t realise that every person is intelligent in his/her own right. Look at the way some people treat caddies on the golf course, for example. I don’t see this attitude abroad. I get a lot of respect in Florida. I guarantee I won’t get any respect in DLTA,” he concludes.
Parts of this interview were published in Playfield magazine’s May 2021 issue by the same author. The piece is being published with permission from Playfield.
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