At first glance, Leander Paes looks like someone straight out of the Senior Tour. He is 40, has a paunch, his serve isn’t particularly strong, his movement is intelligent if not quick and he likes to tell tales.
But then you place him at the net and it all just doesn’t matter. He has soft hands, anticipation, and the experience and smarts to outgun anyone including the record-setting Bryan brothers, who were beaten in the semi-finals of the US Open. Simply put, he probably is the best volleyer in the men’s game at the moment.
Nothing is too difficult – the drop volley, the drive volley, the pickup off his shoelaces, the angled volley, the quick hustle and even quicker hands. He makes it all seem easy and for his partner, Radek Stepanek, that is a boon.
It's old school in the sense that even doubles has become a power game now – big serve… quick finish, a one-two punch as it were. But Paes shows that the magic is in the art. It's one thing to be standing at the net and finishing points with power volleys and it’s quite another to pick your spot and hit the ball exactly there. Perfection of that sort never comes easy and that’s what Leander has managed to achieve.
When Paes was younger, he was a grunter. On certain forehands that were short, he would look to hit big and he would grunt. And then when he was feeling really good, he would extend it, in the words of Andre Agassi, to a ‘kind of Tarzan yell.’
That’s how he was. That’s how he still is -- sans the grunts of course.
Tarzan has given way to a mix of Art of Living inspired motivational speaker who likes the chest bump and shuffles with his partner. At times, in fact, it seems rather odd -- two players, one 40 and the other 34, doing the shuffle on the tennis court in front of thousands of spectators – a co-ordinated routine straight out of a 1980s music video. But it’s the kind of thing he does – he always was the excitable sort and that joie de vivre is what keeps him going.
It is what allowed Paes and Stepanek to get back into the match. With Paes, you can be sure that by the time he goes off the court, there is never anything left in the tank, he lays it all out. Against the Bryans, after the tough first set, Paes decided to go for his shots and as it turns out, he just couldn't miss.
“He (Paes) started feeling it. Yeah, he can get hot. He’s a very streaky player and obviously some of the best volleys in the world and very talented drop-shoter. There is a lot of stuff he can hurt you with. That’s why he’s won seven Grand Slams. I’m sure he’ll be a favourite to win another one. He likes the spotlight and he likes those big moments. He definitely rose to the occasion today,” said Bob Bryan after the match.
By the time the third set began, the wind had started swirling around the Arthur Ashe stadium. The players were serving against a 15-20 miles an hour wind. It wasn’t easy for everyone but Paes. He was finding the lines, making the big plays, moving with confidence at the net and the Bryan brothers could just watch.
You have to realise that we aren’t just talking about any team here. This is a team that had already won the first three Grand Slams of the year and were gunning for a historic fourth to become only the second men's doubles team after the Australians Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman (who did it in 1951) to complete a true Grand Slam. This is a team that has redefined doubles play in recent years. This is the most successful doubles team ever – with 15 majors, 92 titles and eight No. 1 finishes to their name.
And Paes, in a burst of inspiration, left them standing.
He can do that – for a set and a half, Andre Agassi experienced that feeling. Pete Sampras actually has a losing record against Paes. Goran Ivanisevic was on the receiving end too, as were many others. That really is the magic of Paes – no matter who the opponent, you just can’t count him out. If he gets hot and stays hot, he will always have a chance.
Come the final, he’ll hope the streak hasn’t gone cold but he'll also know that it just might take one good shot to ignite it all over again. That's Paes -- quick hands, chest bumper, shuffler, ex-grunter and even at 40, still good enough to beat the best.