Paolo Maldini: "What I like about tennis is the personal challenge"
The grass of Wimbledon looms large, but undoubtedly this week's biggest story in tennis centres on the clay of Milan. The annual ATP Challenger Tour event held in the city in Northern Italy enjoys a prestigious history, with the likes of Tommy Robredo, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Federico Delbonis and Filippo Volandri figuring among the former champions. However, it is the presence in the doubles field of legendary footballer Paolo Maldini – the record appearance-maker in Serie A and five-time Champions League winner with AC Milan, who earned 126 caps for Italy – that has heightened the interest in this year's edition. The recently turned 49-year-old (he celebrated his birthday on Monday) spoke to us about his relationship with tennis and the challenge of contesting his very first official tournament, and doing so on the professional circuit, no less.
Paolo Maldini, how have you come to be contesting a professional tournament at the age of 49?
Stefano Landonio [the 45-year-old former world No.975], my coach and doubles partner, was the one who suggested that we sign up for the pre-qualifying competition organised by the Aspria Harbour Club, the winners of which receive a wildcard for the doubles tournament at the Challenger. To be honest, I almost didn't play because my [15-year-old] son, Daniel, had a really important match in the Italian Under-16s league with AC Milan, which I absolutely couldn't miss. But in the end it worked out and it's really nice to get to play in this tournament, here at my club.
When did you start playing tennis?
I took a few lessons during the holidays when I was ten or 11, but I had to give it up soon enough because I was already playing football seriously by that point and it wasn't possible to combine the two. Then, when I hung up my boots in 2009, I wanted to stay active but, owing to a knee problem, I can't go running or even play football. I tried boxing, which is a very demanding sport, but it left me with sore wrists. So, finally, I took up tennis again. It's not exactly ideal for my knees either, but I'd rather endure some aches and pains than lose my mind [laughing]!
Do you play regularly?
I began by taking classes with Stefano here once or twice a week. I also play with friends from time to time, but I very much dip in and out of it. I've still got a number of professional commitments [he is the co-owner of the football club Miami FC] and I do a lot of travelling, so I can't play as often as I'd like to. Let's put it this way: I can hold my own thanks to my serve and forehand, although there's still work to be done. And I enjoy approaching the net and hitting volleys.
Have you contested any previous competitions?
No – and I don't have a rating! Stefano and I have teamed up in a few exhibition events, such as charity matches, and we enjoyed playing together. But besides a regional Over-45s tournament last year, in which I featured in both the singles and doubles, this is my first experience of a competition [his rating is estimated to be 3.5 in the Italian system, equating to roughly a 15/2 in France, a 5.1 in England and a 4.5 in the US].
Other former footballers regularly come to this club. Do you play with them too?
Yes, I've played against [ex-Inter Milan defender] Nemanja Vidic and [ex-AC Milan midfielder] Clarence Seedorf, but they play a lot more often than me. Since they started later than me, for now I'm still better than them, but considering they're younger than I am, they'll be beating me in a year's time [laughing]!
What changes when you go from a team sport to an individual sport?
For me, the mental side is the biggest difference. In football, you're part of a group on the pitch, and you win and lose as a team. In tennis, you're out there on your own, so you've got to fend for yourself. That's what I like about it: the personal challenge. I enjoy doing sport in general, but I dedicated 25 years of my life to my football career, so today I play tennis without any pressure. I don't have any designs on the rankings – it's all about fun for me.
Do you follow the professional game?
I watch tennis on television. I've been to the US Open a few times, since I spend a lot of time in the US, and I've also been to the Monte-Carlo Masters. But I haven't had the chance to attend Roland-Garros yet.
What are you expecting from your upcoming match against Tomasz Bednarek and David Pel?
To get thumped! I'm under no illusions about the difference between a young tennis ace who plays all year round and a guy of an advanced age who plays sporadically. Plus, I've just come back from a trip to China and I'm totally jet-lagged, so it's going to be tough! But I really want to savour this experience – especially with it being here, at my club.
With Pel and Bednarek at the end of the match (Maldini and Landonio lost 6/1 6/1)... and another AC Milan legend: Clarence Seedorf (©De Matteo - Peluso - Makers).