For some people, age is just a number and is not something that is allowed to hold them back. This is true in all walks of life and sport is no exception. Sure there are certain disciplines where having youth on your side provides you with a huge advantage but there are also examples where the age of an athlete holds no bearing over what they can achieve. In 2016, Nick Skelton became an Olympic gold medalist at the age of 58. Also in 2016 there was an equally impressive feat in the world of tennis, as Leander Paes became a Grand Slam champion at the age of 42. I guess life really can begin at 40!
Paes was born in Calcutta, India in June 1973 to some very sporty parents. His father was an Olympic bronze medalist with the Indian hockey team at the 1972 Munich Olympics whilst his mother was the captain of the Indian basketball team at the 1980 Asian Games. Clearly Paes was always destined to take after his parents with genes like that! Paes was enrolled at a tennis academy in Madras (now Chennai) in 1985 but it was five years later when his career really started to show some promise.
It was 1990 and the young man from India was playing in the junior singles event at Wimbledon. This was a tournament that had previously been won by Ivan Lendl, Pat Cash and Stefan Edberg and Paes, as the 11th seed, would go on to become only the third Indian male to win a junior Grand Slam title. His victory at Wimbledon was followed up in 1991 when he became the junior singles champion at the US Open. His career was on the up and he was already living up to the Paes family name.
Despite the early promise his singles career never really delivered what was expected. Although he won a bronze medal in the singles at the 1996 Olympics, he never managed to progress past the third round of a Grand Slam and only won one ATP title throughout his career. Whilst his singles career was failing to produce what many Indian tennis fans would have hoped for, it was his doubles career that eventually made the world take notice of him. A highest world ranking of 73 in the singles is not what Paes will brag about in his old age. The fact that he has been ranked the number one doubles player in the world is only the very tip of what has ending up being an illustrious career.
The achievements of the 43 year old Indian are really quite astounding and something that could be discussed for far longer than I prefer these features to be. A quick roll call of his career highlights however reads like this... Eight Grand Slam titles in the men's doubles, ten Grand Slam titles in the mixed doubles and 55 ATP men's doubles titles including 13 Masters titles. As if that wasn't enough, I should make it clear that Paes has completed the career Grand Slam in both the men's and mixed doubles. He has also been the runner up in a Grand Slam final on 16 occasions but with 18 titles already, I doubt he loses too much sleep over those missed opportunities.
Appearing in 34 Grand Slam finals is an amazing achievement by any standards but what was most impressive for me was the manner in which he completed the career Grand Slam in the mixed doubles. The French Open, although he had won it three times already with a male partner, was the one title he had never won with a female partner. In fact the only time he had made the final at Roland Garros was back in 2005 when he partnered a certain Martina Navratilova, only to lose the final in three sets.
When 2015 arrived Paes hadn't won a Grand Slam title in the mixed doubles since Wimbledon in 2010 where he partnered Cara Black. All that was about to change. A partnership with a resurgent Martina Hingis was born and with it came three Grand Slam titles in 2015. The new partnership won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open as they proved themselves to be a duo to fear. The French Open would prove, yet again, to be the one that got away for Paes in 2015 as he and Hingis missed out on a calendar slam due to their second round defeat in France.
At 42 years old, Leander Paes could have said enough was enough. It had been more than 25 years since he burst onto the scene as the junior Wimbledon champion and yet here he was in 2016 ready to roll the dice again. At the 2016 French Open, Hingis and Paes were unseeded and so their route to the final would prove to be a difficult one. After coming through the first round in straight sets, they then went on to defeat the 4th, 5th and 6th seeds to book their place in the final against 2nd seeds, Ivan Dodig and Sania Mirza. As a neutral, I couldn't have asked for a better tie for the final. Although Jamie Murray and Chan Hao-Ching were the top seeds, I felt that the two best mixed partnerships at the time had made the final.
In the final Paes would be up against his fellow compatriot in Sania Mirza. Hingis would also be up against her women's doubles partner in what appeared to be a mouth watering tie. Mirza and Dodig would win the first set 6-4 only for Paes and Hingis to hit back by taking the second set by the same scoreline. The match would come down to a champions tie break, a real lottery and test of nerve. The race to ten points was won by Paes and Hingis as they took it 10-8 and with that completed a career Grand Slam as a partnership. Paes became just the third player in the Open Era to win a career Grand Slam in both the men's and the mixed doubles along with Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde and he paid tribute to Hingis who had helped him to achieve this amazing feat. The hard work had paid off for the pairing that had a combined age of 77.
Should one be really critical of Paes' career and for the sake of trying to provide an argument that says that he isn't the best doubles player of all time, you could point to the fact that he never won the ATP Tour Finals as he was four times a runner up. He also never managed to win an Olympic medal in the doubles after losing a bronze medal match in 2004 on a champions tie break. The criticism of his career must really start and end there as it has been a superb journey and one that still continues today. India has produced many fantastic doubles players over the years and although Rohan Bopanna is today seen as their number one, we should remember that at the age of 36, he is still yet to win a Grand Slam title.
More than 130 men and women have had the pleasure of partnering Paes during his illustrious career but it was his partnerships with Mahesh Bhupathi and Lukas Dlouhy that brought him the greatest success. His partnership with Bhupathi was nicknamed the Indian Express and it is this pairing that holds the longest winning streak in Davis Cup doubles history as they went 24 games unbeaten between 1997 and 2010, it was one point that India could always rely on. This is just another record that Paes currently holds.
As the curtain slowly descends on his career the debate can rage on about who is the greatest male doubles player of all time. Woodbridge and Woodforde were always favourites of mine as I grew up and the Bryan brothers have achieved some amazing things too. What strikes me about Paes however is the sheer volume of partners he has had during his career and the number of different partners he has won titles with. For the Bryan brothers, I question if either would have been as successful had one brother not become a tennis player. You can say what you like about the others but only Leander Paes has been a Grand Slam champion at all four events after his 40th birthday. Now that is something special.
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