Leander Paes: Story of a tennis braveheart who continues to conquer peaks
The 40-year-old Leander Paes partnered Radek Stepanek to the US Open men's doubles crown - his third at the Arthur Ashe Stadium and 14th Grand Slam title overall.
Leander Paes has been spearheading India's tennis campaign for over two decades. On Sunday (September 8), he became the face of 'veterans' all over by becoming the oldest men's tennis player to win a Grand Slam.
The 40-year-old Paes wore his heart on his sleeve as he partnered Radek Stepanek to the US Open men's doubles crown - his third at the Arthur Ashe Stadium and 14th overall. That it came at what many may regard as a ripe old age meant little to Paes whose crab dance on the court could have easily outmatched a teenager's exuberance.
It is this passion that has defined the player, his love for the sport growing with each passing year. Little wonder then that after his victory, Paes told NDTV that he feels a lot younger now than he did 10 years ago. "Age is just a number. I think when you have a new leash of life, a second breath, you realise how fragile life is. You live it with a lot of heart and with as much passion as you've got," he said.
Having played professional tennis since 1991, this Goa-born player has indeed seen the metaphoric highs and lows of the sport. Leander shot into international fame when he won the 1990 Wimbledon Junior title and rose to No. 1 in the junior world rankings. Paes started his Davis Cup career in 1990 at the young age of 16, when he partnered Zeeshan Ali in doubles to beat the Japanese team in a grueling five-set encounter. He is considered one of the top Davis Cup players for his country, with a record of 86-31 overall, as of January 2012.
Born to Vece and Jennifer Paes, both national sportspersons, and raised in Kolkata, Paes' first major achievement on the arduous international circuit was reaching the quarterfinal of the doubles event in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He returned to claim the singles bronze in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - first Indian to win an individual medal since 1952 - and stamped his class on Indian tennis. He was also honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award the same year.
His wins became more consistent when he partnered fellow-Indian Mahesh Bhupathi in 1996. The team grew from strength to strength and in 1999, reached the finals of four Grand Slams and won Wimbledon and French Open.
At around the same time, Paes was also threatening to rise in the singles category by defeating Pete Sampras in the New Haven ATP tournament and winning the ATP singles title at Newport. He eventually however, chose to focus more on doubles and mixed-doubles.
Much of his success in the international circuit also came with someone who has herself dominated the sport and has inspired a generation of players including Paes - Martina Navratilova. The pair won the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2003 before a parasitic brain infection pulled the Indian down from his high-flying career.
Determination, grit and sheer hard-work were the three primary reasons why Paes managed to fight back from his illness and while the magic he weaved with Bhupathi had begun to fade, continued to maintain a high doubles ranking. As a result, titles like US Open 2008 mixed doubles, French Open and US Open 2009 men's doubles and Australian Open 2010 mixed doubles became part of his exhaustive trophy cabinet.
Of course, controversies are hard to avoid in a journey as long as the one Paes has made. The player almost always let his racquet talk. Queries on his aging body and fatigue too have been answered similarly. With the US Open win now, Paes has shown yet again that while some of his fans may complain that he is India's underrated stars but when it comes to the sport itself, he is second to none.
Off the court:
Leander Paes is a direct descendant of the Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt through his mother. Raised in Kolkata, he studied at La Martiniere Calcutta, Madras Christian College, Chennai, and the Loyola College, Chennai.
Both his parents were sportspersons and Paes has always credited them for believing in him. Vece, Leander's father, was part of the Munich Olympics gold-winning hockey squad. Vece is a well-known physio in the world of sport.
At one point in time, he was rumoured to be dating Bollywood actress Mahima Choudhary and has himself acted in a movie titled Rajdhani Express. Married to Rhea Pillai, the couple have a seven-year-old daughter Aiyana who too, like her father, has taken to tennis quite naturally.