‘Welcome to the best city in the world’, two separate drivers announced to me as I arrived in Melbourne. One was the driver of the taxi I took into the city, the other was the driver of the metro I took to Melbourne Park.
Leander Paes would probably agree with these drivers, having had some success Down Under. He has won three Australian Open titles here, the first more than a decade ago, and the last in 2015, with his current partner, Martina Hingis. At 43, he has been to Melbourne Park many times, and is one of the recognisable faces on the doubles circuit. Even though his performances in the men’s doubles have slipped over the last few years, he is a global brand; capable of drawing a crowd without being dependent on the Indian diaspora. Add Martina Hingis alongside his name – a legend who has won 11 Australian Open Championships across formats – and you have an irresistible combination.
Which explains why a second round mixed doubles game was bumped up to the rarified climes of the Rod Laver Arena.
“We have never lost when we have stepped out here”, Martina Hingis said in a video interview after the game. They would have been keen to hold on to fortress of RLA going into their second round clash against the Australian pair of Casey Dellacqua and Matt Reid. And they did, sweeping past the local pair in straight sets.
For those lucky enough to see the game first hand, it was their money’s worth. Not just for the tennis, which was excellent from both sides of the court. Their opponents had the home support and skills to boot: Dellacqua and her partner Ashleigh Barty had disposed of Hingis Coco Vanderweghe in the women’s doubles.
Hingis and Paes never looked in trouble throughout the match. Paes, was all quicksilver hands, matching the flecks of silver in his recently acquired facial hair. Hingis was equal to the serves of Reid, and attacked Dellacqua at every chance she got. Unlike a traditional mixed doubles pair, where the male player goes boom from the baseline and the female provides the deft touches at the net, Hingis and Paes seemed most comfortable the other way around: Paes carving crescents with his racket at the net, and Hingis swinging from the baseline. On the occasions they alternated between baseline and net, or ad and deuce court, they resembled two cosmic bodies orbiting each other, perfectly balancing each other’s gravity; never too close, never too far.
“They had that chemistry that they always had,” said Peggy Zaman, a former India tennis player who was watching the game. She has watched Paes play for more than 20 years all around the world, and has even played with him. “They looked like they were enjoying themselves. They just understand each other’s game so well.”
But it was between the points that the viewers got the real entertainment. Flashing smiles as Hingis and Paes snuck balls down the lines past the outstretched rackets of their opponents. Rueful grins as they missed points that were there for the taking. Paes even took a playful swipe at Hingis’ ponytail. There was that word again, chemistry, so clearly evident but so hard to bottle up.
They don’t have the left and right hand combination of the Bryan Brothers, but they do have twin-esqe coordination. They don’t have a male player with the biggest serve, in a format that cashes in heavily on having one. So what is it about this pair that makes you want to sit up and watch them? And what is it about the game that they can find so much to smile about?
As I watched, the lady sitting next to me who had just arrived, asked if this was a legends match. It well could have been. Hingis is 37, Paes is 43. Carlos Moya and Lindsay Davenport, both aged 40, are playing in the legends draw.
Perhaps the lady was on to something. Towards the end of my own career, I reached a point where I stopped caring about selections, and the results, and where my team stood on the table. I just tried to play for the love of the game, the very reason I started playing in the first place. Not surprisingly, I played some of my best cricket after that. It was a mindset that was hard to hold on to; I would so easily slip back into the competitive grind from time to time. While that mindset was necessary from a preparation point of view, it was not a good space to be in while in the middle of a game. It took me about ten years to get to that point, though.
In his book If better is possible, John Buchanan, coach of the record breaking Australian Test team of the early 2000s, spoke about the significance of the black belt in martial arts. While I cannot recall his exact thoughts verbatim, I clearly remember him discussing how a student progresses to master – white belt to black – and then back to white as the colour of the black belt fades with time. It signified the master returning to the mindset of the student, the final stage in the martial arts journey.
It is something that Paes mentioned in the interview just after their win. “We’re always looking to learn. No matter how many Grand Slams we have won, were students of the game of tennis. For instance, this morning in practice my returns weren’t working very well. And Martina gave me one tip. That one tip really helped on the match court.”
Perhaps this is why Paes and Hingis smile so much. They have seen it all. The early success. The struggles to sustain it. The time away from the game (Hingis). The long lists of doubles partners (Paes). They have gotten to the top, and seen the bottom, and stay with the game nonetheless, because it makes them smile (and pays the bills). On top of all that, they are playing in a format that even tennis does not seem to take seriously, with mixed doubles only making an appearance at Grand Slams, and a third set deemed an unnecessary luxury.
And they were playing at one of the pairs favourite venues ‘the best city in the world’. It’s not surprising that they smiled so much. And we can’t help but smile watching them play.
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2017 17:03:55 IST