At an age when men are happy showing off their calorific beer bellies, Leander Paes is busy rewriting tennis history.
On Sunday, the 41-year-old combined beautifully with another popular champion in Swiss queen Martina Hingis to capture his 15th Grand Slam title. The Indian ace and his twice-retired partner defeated Canadian Daniel Nestor and Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic 6-4 6-3 to win the mixed doubles crown at theAustralian Open in Melbourne.
Paes, who has also won eight Grand Slam men’s doubles titles, took his mixed doubles tally to seven. The 34-year-old Hingis, a former World No. 1, now has 16 major crowns, including five on the singles circuit.
Interestingly, Paes and Hingis celebrated their third and second mixed doubles triumphs, respectively, at the season’s opening major. Back in 2003, Paes had combined with the player Hingis was named after — Martina Navratilova. Call it a sweet coincidence or whatever, but Navratilova was in the stands on Sunday. And incredibly enough, the last time Hingis won here, in 2006, her partner was a chap called Mahesh Bhupathi. In 2010, Paes won the title with Zimbabwe’s Cara Black.
“Martina, thank you for lending me Leander!” Hingis joked at the trophy ceremony, drawing a smile from the American who is considered among the greatest players of all time. “I know you won your last (Australian Open) title together. Not even in my wildest dreams that 20 years (18, actually) later I’d be standing here again.”
“It feels awesome to win my 15th Grand Slam title in the very first month of the year. This Grand Slam is special because Martina and I won it without losing a set,” Paes told dna. “Winning Grand Slams with both Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis is very special,” he added.
The Indo-Swiss pair opened their campaign against Australia’s Sam Thompson of Donvale and Werribee’s Masa Jovanovic, winning 6-2 7-6(2). In the next round, they overcame Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues and Pablo Andujar 6-3 6-1. In the quarters, the No. 7 seeds thrashed the No. 4 seeds Andrea Hlavackova of the Czech republic and Alexander Peya of Austria 6-3 6-1. They then overcame the unseeded duo of Su-Wei Hsieh (Chinese Taipei) and Pablo Cuevas (Uruguay) 6-1 6-2. In Sunday’s final, Paes and Hingis broke their opponents’ serve on five occasions to win in straight sets.
“The Rod Laver Arena is one of my favourite tennis stadiums,” Paes revealed. “This is where I reached my first Grand Slam final as a junior 25 years ago. Today’s final was a mental battle of having patience against a very powerful team. Once we were able to neutralise their power from their serves and first returns, then our speed and shot making was undeniable,” he added.
Paes and his former live-in partner Rhea Pillai are fighting a legal battle for the custody of their young daughter, Aiyana. Even though Paes didn’t elaborate on his personal struggles, one must salute his grit. However can someone maintain poise under such pressure!
“I thank the Lord up above for a blessed career and standing by me through good and tough times. Martina and I also play together on the Washington Kastles team, so there’s good understanding between us,” he said.
At the post-match press conference, Paes reiterated his support for Hingis. “My target is to get Martina her Career Grand Slam. That’s my goal. If it takes me two years, so be it. That’s my goal,” he said.
Incidentally, both Paes and Hingis have completed the Career Slam in men’s and women’s doubles, respectively. Paes is a French Open away from completing his tally in mixed doubles. He had the final way back in 2005. Hingis has yet to win the mixed doubles title at the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open.