"Age is just a number to look and smile at." At 40, having won 14 Grand Slams and made mostly the right choices, Leander Paes is arguably one of India's greatest, if not the greatest, sportsperson. And with his third US Open trophy last night, he proved that yet again.
Put him at the net and age takes a backseat. That's actually what made Paes the ace during his early Davis Cup days that culminated into famous chest-bumps with Mahesh Bhupathi and growing stack of silverware in his cabinet, 14 of which are grand slam trophies - eight in men's doubles and six in mixed doubles.
You can't help but admit that Paes chose the right court to play on. His slick movement on the net, quick hands and out-of-the-box thinking made him a master of volley and a dictator close to the net. A perfect recipe to be a good doubles play, and Paes became one of the best.
Perhaps Paes learned to become ageless from her former mixed doubles partner and tennis legend Martina Navratilova. "The passion with which she plays the game and lives her life is another thing that has always inspired me," Paes said some time back.
Inspiration is something Paes has never lacked. Playing for the country brought the best out of him. He would throw himself at the ball with a full-stretchleap, sending his home Davis Cup crowd in a frenzy. The shouts of 'India..India' went a level up every time Paes pumped the air after winning a point. That laid the foundation for him to become a legend.
Andre Agassi, who beat Paes at the Atlanta Olympics men's singles semi-final in 1996, shares the same feelings.
"In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He's a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour's quickest hands. Still, he's never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs - he's the Brad of Bombay. Then, behind all his junk, he flies to the net, covers so well that it seems to work. After an hour, you feel as if he hasn't hit one ball cleanly - and yet he's beating you soundly. Because I'm prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6 6-3." Leander won a bronze.
Agassi wrote that in his book 'Open: An Autobiography'.
Not difficult to admit that had Leander opted to improve in singles, he wouldn't have gotten much far with a weak serve in an era of power tennis. His neat interceptions, expert drop shots and a knack of finding the right place to put the ball has earned him 14 major trophies. There can't be a bigger proof that he made the smart choice of concentrating on his doubles game.
Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic were caught napping by Paes - the two biggest kills he made in his singles career on the circuit. Being up against it always brought the best out of Paes, as we saw against the Bryan Brothers in this US Open semi-finals. The Bryans were on the verge of history, but had Leander in the way, with his partner Radek Stepanek, who is 34. Despite a combined age of 74, the Indo-Czech pair managed to overpower the best in the business and then went on to win the final 6-1, 6-3 against Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares.
Yes, Leander is right: "Age is just a number to look and smile at." But when we say that, it's important to realize that Leander is still winning trophies, beating the best and looking good for at least a couple more.