The Shrine, I am going to play here one day. That is how I've felt about Wimbledon since childhood. Ever since I took to tennis at 10 years at the Calcutta South Club, I was tutored in the history of the championships by veterans such as Naresh Kumar, Jaidip Mukerjea, Premjit Lall and Akhtar Ali. I also recall, around that time, I was told by the tennis secretary of Dalhousie Institute to leave the tennis courts when practicing with my father, since the time slot was allocated for the seniors, even though the courts were free. I reluctantly left the premises protesting loudly: "One day when I win Wimbledon, you will be inviting me to play on these courts."
To me, Wimbledon stands apart from all the three other slams, (the French, Australian and US Open) owing to its hallowed traditions, the amazing organisation despite the rains, the lush grass courts, the royal box and its VVIPs, strawberries and cream, and the fact that it was my first junior grand slam tournament win.
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Leander Paes and Martina Navratilova after winning the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon in 2003. Martina, then 46, became the oldest player to win a Grand Slam
It is the turf where the legends of the game - Björn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Boris Becker and before that, Rod Laver - built their grass court reputations.
Over the years, I have tried to claim some of the hallowed turf as my own. In 1990, I won the juniors title here. I believe, at that point, the win was exciting and significant, as it got me on the way to my ATP career.
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In 1999, I held the doubles trophy aloft with Mahesh Bhupathi. The moment was special since we reached the finals of all four Grand Slams that year and consolidated our number one ATP Tour world ranking.
In 2003, it was mixed doubles with Martina Navratilova and in 2010, after winning the mixed doubles with Cara Black, I became the second man after Rod Laver to win Wimbledon titles in three different decades. It was an honour to be clubbed with Laver, probably the greatest tennis player ever.
But every time I've played here over my 23-year-old career, I have never ceased to be amazed at the championships' timeless charm. Whenever the knowledgeable English crowd applauds you after a rally, the atmosphere is uniquely Wimbledon. The Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open, the Rod Laver Arena at the Australian, not even the Court Philippe Chatrier at the Roland Garros comes close.
Wimbledon has its quirks, including the English weather. Once, I survived as many as 11 rain delays spread over three days to finish one of my matches. But it adds to the tournament's charm.
Over the years, I've appreciated iconic singles winners such as Björn Borg, Boris Becker, Pat Cash, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. And in the ladies, that extraordinary champion and fabulous human being, Martina Navratilova, with whom I've had the privilege of playing, stands out.
In 2003, I didn't have a doubles partner at the Australian Open. But at the sign-in for the tournament, Martina came up to me and asked me whether I would be her partner. I could not have said no to a legend of the game. The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did we go on to win the Australian Open, but we also emerged winners at Wimbledon. At that point, Martina, who was 46, became the oldest player ever to win a Grand Slam. Today, when I have turned 41, Martina continues to inspire me. For the indomitable champion, age is just a number and she just keeps getting better with every passing year. Just like Wimbledon!
(With three mixed doubles titles and one men's doubles championship victory, the writer is India's most successful player at Wimbledon)
From HT Brunch, June 29
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