Sports fans in India (presuming that most of them are cricket fans) have been focused on goings-on in Australia, with the Test series, the one-day tri-series that just got over and the World Cup in the offing. The outcomes for the Indian team have been disappointing so far, with a 0-2 loss in the Test series and the failure to make it to the finals of the tri-series. However, while all this was going on, last Sunday brought some good news for tennis fans. Leander Paes partnered with Martina Hingis to win the mixed doubles at the Australian open, the first Grand Slam of 2015. In terms of sheer persistence and longevity at the top levels of professional sports, Paes is setting benchmarks that have now become extremely difficult, if not impossible, for sportspersons to achieve.
Paes was born in 1973, the same year as Sachin Tendulkar. The latter made his Test debut in 1989, while the former won the Wimbledon Junior Championship in 1990. Sachin Tendulkar, of course, retired from international cricket in 2013, but Paes seems set to go on to win a few more titles. He won his first men’s doubles Grand Slam in the French Open in 1999, partnering Mahesh Bhupathi. He has won eight in all, with four different partners – Bhupathi, Martin Damm, Lukas Dlouhy and Radek Stepanek, with whom he won the US Open title in 2013. He was also runner-up eight times.
His eight titles put him fifth on the list in the open era (1968 onwards). On top of that list are Mike Woodforde and the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, with 16 titles each. Incidentally, John Newcombe and John McEnroe, both top-ranked singles players, also figure in the top five, but since their time, doubles has become a completely specialised format. Paes’ highest singles world ranking was 73, while he did reach the top rank in doubles for some time. In all, Paes has 55 men’s doubles titles in Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tournaments (including Grand Slams) and another 38 entries into finals, with his first title coming in 1995. In over more than 20 years of his professional career, Paes has had 99 doubles partners!
In the mixed doubles, a format that is mainly played in the Grand Slams, Paes has seven titles and eight runners-up positions. His first was at Wimbledon in 1999, with Lisa Raymond. He has won his titles with three other partners, including Martina Navratilova, who tops the list of Grand Slam titles in this format, with 10. Paes, with his seven, is third on this list, one behind his former partner Mahesh Bhupathi. He has played with 23 partners in this format. Other than these, his record in the Davis Cup and his Olympic medal also reflect his substantial contributions to Indian tennis. He was awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award in 1998.
Purists may scoff at this performance record, arguing that doubles is a marginalised format, no longer played by the best in the game. Prize money levels reflect this. The singles winners in the Australian Open were paid A$ 3.1 million (about Rs 15 crore) each, while Paes and Hingis shared a modest A$ 142,500 (about Rs 69 lakh) between them. However, the fact is that for virtually all club-level tennis players, doubles is the most frequently played format. The superhuman capabilities of professional singles players are great to watch, but too far away to emulate. On the other hand, the doubles game is much more within reach. Some agility and a lot of co-ordination combined with opportunism and improvisation make this format fun to watch as well as fun to play. For his longevity, his ability to play well with just about any partner and the visible joy he gets from playing, Paes is really a role model for all tennis enthusiasts.