ICON Leander Paes, with a grand slam count of 11, has had his share of good and bad days, on court and off it.
When Leander Paes won the Australian Open mixed doubles title partnering Carla Black of Zimbabwe, he took his grand slam count to 11, equalling compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi's record. The accumulated silverware — six mens' doubles titles and five mixed doubles crowns — statistically at least, confirm his status as a leading exponent of doubles play currently, age not withstanding. A perusal of his records in a chronological sequence, serves to throw light on the milieu of his success, the vaulting popularity, the band of unctuous minions that success immediately attracts, the media brokered high-profile-split-up with his then doubles partner Bhupathi and of course, the trajectory and direction his game took over time.
Paes turned professional in 1991, on the back of the Junior Wimbledon and Junior U.S. Open titles, and as an 18-year-old, in what was a sign of things to come, teamed up with Ramesh Krishnan to get to within a win of the medal's round at the doubles event of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The years immediately after he had made the step-up, were spent in a kind of a limbo, where Paes , a fairly good singles player with an athletic game, couldn't cut it with the big guns. Four years on, and by then fairly used to carrying the hopes of a nation come Davis Cup time, Paes won India its first medal at an individual event since 1952 when he clinched the Bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
For an entire generation that watched Paes rally to beat players far superior to him by way of ability in the exacting cauldron of Davis Cup tennis, it did not come as a surprise when he later said that the bronze meant more to him than the win against the then world number one Pete Sampras in 1998. The year 1997 was a bit of a watershed as Paes made some headway in both the singles and the doubles circuit. He made it to the second round or better in three grand slams for the year, and partnering Bhupathi, picked up six doubles titles.
Later, when the tiff between the two players came to light, Paes confessed that he let his singles play slip up a bit because of the effort that he was putting into making the combo work. Though 1998 was barren of grand slams, success in the doubles events kept rolling in, as the all-Indian duo claimed another six titles. The year also saw Paes get the better of Marc Rosset, two-time French Open winner Sergi Brugera and Pete Sampras in the first three rounds of the tournament before losing to Goran Ivanesivic in the quarterfinals, where the Croat avenged his 1995 Davis cup defeat to the Indian. With success in the doubles arena coming thick and fast, Paes, a tricky singles opponent on his day when the conditions are right, was begining to shelf that side of his game.
The break-up and after
The three-year period between 1999 and 2001 saw the pair reach the pinnacle of their doubles prowess and the subsequent meltdown. The much awaited success at the slams eventually arrived, and then there was two. The duo made it to the final of all four grand slams in the year, winning the Wimbledon and the French Open titles, becoming the first Indians to win a Grand Slam event in any capacity. Paes experimented with different doubles partners through 2000 and 2001, though he teamed up with Bhupathi to win the 2001 French Open crown.
Just when the pair was hitting an all-time high, alarming reports surfaced in the media that all was not quite well with the duo. Mentioned in them were accounts of ego clashes, the roles the respective parents played in the increasingly worsening relationship, the alleged disrespect that the silence or the outburst of one caused to the other and so on.
Paes seemed to have been the one hardest hit when the pair decided to part ways as he went home empty handed from the slams for almost five years in the doubles field. However, the years weren't entirely without success, as teaming up with Lisa Raymond and Martina Navrátilová, he picked up five mixed-doubles title in the period. When
Paes finally turned it around, contravening the vagaries of age and form, he hit a purple patch again as he won the U.S. and French Open titles in 2009 and teaming up with Carla Black, has pocketed the latest, his eleventh grand slam title.
Quick hands at the net, the ability to anticipate and the discretion to use judiciously his set of skills and lingering athleticism apart from the power to raise his game when the occasion demands it, indicate of a grand slam count that may not stop at the current numbers.