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Forever Young

Leander Paes became the oldest man to win a Grand Slam title last week when he and Radek Stepanek clinched the US Open doubles title. At 40, Paes created a world record by becoming the oldest man to win a Grand Slam title. Interestingly, the oldest woman to achieve the same feat, Martina Navratilova, partnered Paes to win mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2003. She was 49 then!

With a record 14 titles (eight doubles, six mixed doubles) in his kitty, Paes is by far the best Indian player to hold a tennis racquet. Paes, still going strong even after 23 years in the sport,  is considered to be one of the greatest and most respected contemporary doubles and mixed doubles players in the world.

Paes showed promise early in his career by winning junior’s titles at US Open and Wimbledon in 1991. For some time Paes remained the number one junior player in the world before turning professional in 1991. Now at 40, Paes is well past his prime but he has lost none of the excitement that characterised him as a teenager. He still seems to love the game as much as he did back when he was conquering the world of doubles with Mahesh Bhupathi. While Indian tennis had seen its fair share of stalwarts in Ramanathan Krishnan, Premjit Lal, Ramesh Krishnan and Vijay Amritraj, it was Paes who really put India on the tennis globe with success in many high-profile tournaments.

In Stepanek, who is 34, Paes seems to have found the perfect counterpoint. A tireless crusader, Stepanek plays the perfect foil to an aging Paes and both players seem to have immense respect for one another. So committed is Stepanek to the game that at Wimbledon he played the singles and doubles matches on the same day before a bout of fatigue forced him to retire from the singles draw. Regardless of whether the two end up winning the US Open title or not, their campaign in the tournament so far has truly been the stuff of legend and this is sure to evoke inspiration and awe from all quarters.

As far as Paes is concerned, he has set his sights on the 2016 Rio Olympics and although that is still three years down the line, one will hope he remains as fit as ever so that he can realise his dream. Once he dons the Indian colours, Paes braces himself to give everything for it. He is in fact the only medallist in the Olympics for India in the game of tennis.

Paes decided not to prolong his career in singles knowing full well that he did not have the game to challenge the best in the business. But, his feats in doubles, both in men’s and mixed doubles’ category have ensured that he will go down as one of the best ever doubles player. He has won a staggering 14 Majors and he is not content to rest on his past laurels and is continuing to push himself to greater heights.

Son of former hockey Olympian Vece Paes, who was part of the bronze medal winning team at 1972 Munich Olympics, Paes said after the US Open triumph his father always told him to keep pushing to try to get better. ‘You know, both of us (Radek Stepanek) spoke to our respective fathers just now. My dad is an Olympian. Won a medal in ‘72 in field hockey. The first thing he told us was, ‘you guys keep getting better’. My father is the sort of guy who doesn’t rest on his laurels. He keeps pushing to try to get better. Every one inch, every one percent helps,’ said Paes.

Arguably one of the most passionate sportsman in the country, Paes feels he is still young enough to continue since the tricolour provides him all the motivation he needs even after 23 years into the game. After playing his 50th Davis Cup tie earlier this year, Paes had said, ‘Fiftieth? Are you sure? I still feel young.’

Zver since his first Wimbledon title at the junior level in 1991, Paes has played with authority which has been dazzling to watch.

Navratilova taught me healthy lifestyle: Paes

Among the various partners Paes has played with over the years, the legendary Martina Navratilova surely stands out as the most special. After winning at the Flushing Meadows, Paes credited his former mixed doubles partner for helping him elongate his international career by adopting a ‘clean lifestyle’.

‘Playing with Martina for many many years, I have learnt a lot. She is obviously a big inspiration for me to continue to remodel my game and stay healthy. I have also learnt how to live a clean lifestyle and be productive towards my tennis,’ Paes told reporters on his return to India.

‘I had no idea that I was the first person in the Open era to win a grand slam at 40. What I did know was that this whole year had been such a rough one, both on and off the court. It has been a very hard year. Coming into American summer, I knew I had to do really well. My first week in the Canadian Open in Montreal did not go well and the week in Cincinnati was average (got through to the quarterfinals). So I added an extra tournament (Winston-Salem Open) and played with a new partner called Daniel Nestor and we won that one. That seems to have kickstarted the rhythm,’ he said.

For Paes, US Open has always been a happy hunting ground. ‘In US Open, I have done really well over the years. I won the junior singles title way back in 1991. For the last seven years, my performance in mixed doubles and men’s doubles is fairly solid at the US Open. I was happy to get the hard court and humid conditions which we Indians are used to,’ said Paes

The recent success will also fuel his Paes’ dream of playing in a record seventh Olympic Games to be held at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. ‘Playing in the 2016 Olympics has been on my agenda for a long time. In fact, I’d said after last year’s London Games I would be there in Rio in four years’ time to play a record seventh Olympics. Not many took me seriously because I’d be 43 then, but I’m not joking. I’m going after 41 now, 42, and then 43,’ said the champion.  WITH AGENCY INPUTS

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