He has always been fascinated by numbers. Breaking records and creating history is his signature style. An intense, hard-fought victory in mixed doubles of the French Open on Friday ensured Leander Paes became only the third man in tennis’ Open Era to complete a double career Grand Slam (men’s and mixed). But the soon-to-be 43-year-old has already turned his focus on another milestone — to become the only player to win the most number of mixed doubles titles.
“I’m honoured to have equalled Martina’s (Navratilova) Open Era record of 10 mixed doubles Slams at the French Open with her in my (players’) box,” said a contended Paes on Sunday from Paris.
Partnering ‘Swiss Miss’ Martina Hingis, the unseeded duo beat Sania Mirza and Ivan Dodig 4-6, 6-4, 10-8 for the only trophy missing in their quest to complete a career Slam as partners. “But going forward, I want to extend my tally. That would be my way of showing gratitude to Navratilova who has helped me so much on and off court. She’s the one who has taught me about lifestyle and longevity.”
Paes shares a special relationship with the legend. On court he’s won two Slams in 2003 with Navratilova, but off court his respect and admiration for the player with the most number of titles (167 in singles and 177 in doubles for the statistically minded) is unmatched.
Rewind to 2005, Paes and Navratilova were up a set and break at the Roland Garros final against Daniela Hantuchova and Fabrice Santoro. “I remember going for a drop shot and dislocating my shoulder,” he recollected. Had they won, his mixed career Slam would have come 11 years back.
The scores were tied at one-set all on Friday. In a super tie-break it boils down to not making errors because a win hinges on the team that wins 10 points. So close was the decider that mini breaks dominated. At 9-8, Hingis’ cross-court forehand winner gave the unseeded duo the elusive trophy as a dejected Sania and Dodig looked on.
“The want to complete my trophy cabinet was definitely a motivation,” said Paes, who has three men’s doubles titles here and a total of 18 Grand Slams. “Months on end, Roland Garros just remained elusive. Martina (Hingis) and I talked about it because we lost out here in the quarters last year. Even after we lost the first set, we had a discussion to get our returns going. It was definitely one of the best matches I’ve played because the quality of tennis was so high. I feel humbled and a sense of gratitude to have achieved this (career Slam) with one of my best friends.”
After playing the last match on the Philippe Chatrier Court, completing media obligations, the standard anti-dope proceedings and finally cooling down, Paes took his Swiss partner and team out for dinner to an Indian restaurant.
“Martina loves Indian food so that’s what we had,” he said. No night long parties? “What party? It was such a long day and it’s so cold here,” he laughed. Roland Garros had no play for almost two days this time due to incessant rain.
“Martina and I were just discussing how amazing the past 16 months have been. In six Grand Slams we’ve played together, we have lost only two matches. Then, we’ve been playing together for the Washington Kastles in the World Tennis Team for three years now and are unbeaten. To even think about our stats and win/loss ratio is mind boggling,” he said, amazed.
He loves sweets but stays away because he can’t stop at one. When he made the quarters of the men’s and mixed doubles earlier in the week, he had promised himself a delicious macaron from Laduree, the creators of the delicious airy dessert, if he won either event. Did he come good on the promise?
“I went to Champs-Elysees but didn’t get one. I will tomorrow. They are just so good,” he laughed, thinking of the treat. After all, he had to work very hard to earn it.