Leander Paes’ retirement plans have well and truly been put on hold after the Indian ace rolled back the years again to win another Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last weekend.
The 41-year-old veteran and Swiss comeback queen Martina Hingis claimed the mixed doubles crown with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Daniel Nestor and Kristina Mladenovic – with Paes promising the new partnership will extend his career for at least another two years.
After sealing his 15th major championship in Melbourne, Paes set himself one more challenge before finally calling it a day – to help former women’s world number one Hingis complete her own mixed-doubles career slam.
Hingis, who retired twice through injury and the rigours of the tour, has won an incredible 16 Grand Slams of her own, including five singles titles and nine women’s doubles successes.
The 34-year-old though remains a French, Wimbledon and US Open trium-ph away from the full mixed doubles set.
“My target is to get Martina her career Grand Slam. If it takes me two years, so be it. That’s my goal,” Paes said when asked what’s next on his agenda.
“Actually, yes, I can (see myself returning to Australia for a few more years). I love the game of tennis. To play with this champion who I keep learning from every day is a lot of fun. I look forward to being back soon.
“The best thing that happened today was when my coach said: ‘Lee, your speed’s back’. If you can impress your coach, you’re doing pretty well. Normally they’re your biggest critics.
“I called my dad as soon as we won. He said: ‘Okay, now you have to focus on the next one’. I said: ‘Dad, it hasn’t even been five minutes (since we won this one)!’”
Paes made his first appearance Down Under way back in 1994. Since then he has scooped eight men’s doubles championships (Australian Open 2012; French Open 1999, 2001 and 2009; Wimbledon 1999; and US Open 2006, 2009 and 2013).
He has also secured seven mixed titles (Australia 2003, 2010 and 2015; Wimbledon 1999, 2003 and 2010; and US Open 2010). Only the French Open is needed for his own doubles career slam.
Paes described his link-up with Hingis as “amazing”, but revealed the partnership almost didn’t happen. The duo didn’t lose a set throughout the whole tournament in Oz – the first time Paes has ac-hieved the feat whilst winning a major.
“We’ve been playing together in World Team Tennis (WTT) for Washington Kastles the past two seasons, so I asked her to play mixed doubles with me in the Slams, first in 2013 and then at the start of last year,” Paes explained.
“But she said that she was scared and told me: ‘You can win Slams with a better partner’. We complemented each other well. Our understanding of each other is just amazing.
“On court I just feel like I have such a big advantage because I don’t have to overplay. Martina is such a smart tennis player and knows exactly what movements I’m going to do. And I know what movements she’s going to do too.”
He added: “We trust in each other. That’s the thing that makes us potent. We’re undefeated in WTT and won the championships a few times now. So far we’re undefeated in Grand Slam tennis.
“I’m not trying to put the pressure on, but we haven’t lost a set yet. It’s the first Slam I’ve won out of my 15 that’s happened – and that’s thanks to this young lady here. The smarts, the intelligence is what stands out.”
Hingis, a winner of three Australian singles titles in 1997, 1998 and 1999, thanked her idol and legend Martina Navratilova for suggesting Paes as her mixed-doubles partner and admitted she was just glad to be back.
“Not even in my wildest dreams would I have believed that 20 years later I’d be standing here again,” she said.
“I felt like I could still hold my own. Lee has been on at me for three years. We were holding the trophy and I told him I was so scared. Maybe we should have played a couple of big tournaments together earlier.
“But I was just really scared to – I wasn’t ready to take the tension, be on court. But he kept going on at me.”
So with this blossoming relationship having the potential for more glory, just how long can Paes go on for? “I never put a limit on anything. It’s been a great start to the year I just want to keep going, keep the mind young,” he concluded.