'What makes it special with Martina Hingis is that every day you are learning, just like with Navratilova every day I was learning'
'2015 has already started and the first month has already been better than the whole year of 2014'
Leander Paes talks to Harish Kotian/Rediff.com about his recent Australian Open mixed doubles triumph that saw him complete a 'Martina double' and the special bond he shares with his former Grand Slam-winning partner, Navratilova.
After enduring a tough season last year, Leander Paes kicked off 2015 in grand style by winning the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open. The 41-year-old Indian ace’s 15th Grand Slam crown came with new partner Martina Hingis, one of his favourite players on the Tour. The pair went through the year’s first Grand Slam without dropping a set.
2014 was certainly a tough year for the veteran tennis star. Just one title was all he could show for his efforts, as he failed to win a Grand Slam and did not qualify for the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals. The poor showing saw him finish outside the top 25 in the men’s doubles rankings for the first time in his career, which has stretched to nearly 25 years now.
However, after a smashing start to 2015, which also includes the men’s doubles title at the Auckland ATP event, partnering South Africa’s Raven Klaasen, and a runners-up finish at the Chennai Open, he is all geared and looking forward to a successful year on the Tour.
Harish Kotian/Rediff.com caught up Paes at the Sofitel Hotel, situated at the Bandra-Kurla Complex in suburban Mumbai, to celebrate his Australian Open triumph. During the course of a tete-e-tete, while discussing his special bonding with the two Martinas, he revealed the story of a cross he gifted to Navratilova, with whom he won mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2003 when she was recovering from cancer.
Martinas have a special place in your life. After winning two Grand Slams with Martina Navratilova in 2003 you now have now one with Martina Hingis. What makes you tick with them?
There is a vast difference in their approach to the game of tennis. Martina Navratilova is a serve and volley player, as you know, and Martina Hingis plays from the baseline; she’s one of the best returners in the game. There is a vast difference in the way they play their singles. They play their styles: one is very aggressive, one is more patient. Seeing these unique differences, there is also one similarity between them. They are very, very passionate about striving for excellence; they won’t leave any stone unturned.
You and Hingis connected instantly. You’ll cruised to the title without dropping a single set. What was it that made you two click so quickly?
In between the semi-final and final of the Australian Open Hingis and I practiced for half an hour to just get our feel without getting too tired for the final. But we ended up practicing for two hours on Saturday because we just love playing. We were out there trying different things. In the last half hour we were actually trying short cross-court angles. If we had stopped in that half an hour we wouldn’t have gotten that far.
On Sunday, when we played against [Kristina] Mladenovic, who I had lost to twice before, and who she [Hingis] had also lost to twice before, we realised that even though Mladenovic is so tall you can’t overpower her, she is very strong. But if you hit the angles -- like for Martina on the ad court to go cross-court that way, and for me from the deuce court to this way, she can be beaten. Because she [Mladenovic] has long strides she couldn’t adjust her legs and these low dipping shots, angled shots, caused havoc for her. That’s why we broke them so often. We had an opening. These are the things that are magic. You enjoy the game, you enjoy working hard in life and then something beautiful comes up.
Looking at our individual careers, they speak for themselves.
Also, Martina and myself, which a lot of Indian people would not know is that we are undefeated in world team tennis. Over the last 2-3 seasons we haven’t lost a match. I have been asking her for the last three years to play. What makes Martina Hingis so unique is her humbleness. For someone who has won singles majors all over the planet, been No. 1 in the world, winning 16 Grand Slams is unbelievable.
For someone who has won so much and yet be humble enough to say, ‘No, no, I am scared to play with you because what if we lose? You can play with others and win. You are playing with others and winning’, it is unbelievable.
I also felt that there was a certain stress about so much I had achieved with Navratilova, who is one of her icons. She was even named after her. She felt that the results I had with Navratilova she had to live up to that because of her stature.
If you actually look through what she is saying there is an amazing humbleness for a legend of the game. She is tremendous. What makes it special with Martina Hingis is that every day you are learning, just like with Navratilova every day I was learning. Whether it was the diet with Navratilova, whether it was about the mind games with Hingis, she (Hingis) has different gears in her game. She likes to play her style, but she can adapt to the day.
If her returns are not working she goes to the serve; if the serve is not working she goes to the ground-strokes. If she thinks I am crossing a little too much because it is mixed doubles she would say, ‘Okay, Lee, watch your line!’.
She is not scared to follow or lead; those are the kind of people I work with best. It is a give and take; it is a two-way road always. You are not shy to lead and tell me exactly what to do; or, on a day, if I am feeling right and good, you are not shy to follow either. Those friendships mean the most to me.
Your old partner and good friend Navratilova was in the stands cheering for you during the final. How much did that mean to you?
Yeah, she came and she even had my cross on her neck; it was really special! We were up 3-0 in the first set and then it was 3-3 and she walked in. As Navratilova walked in I looked at Hingis and told her ‘my lucky charm has just walked in’. Once she walked in Navratilova went to her neck and she pulled the cross and rubbed it and I think the game was won there and then. We pretty much went through the two sets straight after.
You certainly share a special bond with Navratilova despite not having played with her for a long time...
Navratilova and myself have been through a lot of adversities, medical issues, in our lives together. She was my 9 pm phone call every single day when I was at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre (in Houston). And when I came out she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I met her in Paris and got permission from the doctor to take her out for dinner, and that dinner was at our favourite Indian restaurant, Annapurna. She kept looking at my cross throughout and, finally, after the dinner I took it off and gave it to her. I had designed the cross in 2006 when I won the US Open for the first time and I used to wear the cross because I designed it myself and got it made by a friend of mine.
When she looked at it I just felt there was a lot of energy about the cross and I put the cross on her neck and six weeks later she walked out of the cancer research centre in Paris and then went to try and climb Mount Kilimanjaro [in Tanzania].
At 41, how do you keep yourself going at the highest level and achieve so much success?
The passion; I love what I do! Every athlete will lose more in their career than win. I have been blessed to win on the big stage very often, but for me tennis is a way of life, sport is a way of life, healthy living is a way of life. The hard work that one has put in over the years gets showcased when I play big events. Even if I am practicing in a club in Mumbai or playing on Court No. 19, somewhere I am always looking to create something. I enjoy life; I make the best of it!
The approach is different now. About 12 years ago, exactly, I would play 40 weeks a year and I would just be out there playing and playing and waiting for the right weeks to come around. But over the last 12 years I have cut back more and more events. I was worried back then that by playing less events would the results be less, would the rankings drop? But what has happened by playing less events I am focussed on the events that I play and I am doing better.
Till last Monday, Raven [Klaasen] and I were the No. 1 in the world as a team, and now winning the first Grand Slam of the year. I find now that my approach is more based on the big tournaments, the Grand Slams, the Olympics next year, based on events that matter. The smaller events, like the 250, 500 [series], they don’t matter as much; it is more geared through the Grand Slams.
You have now played with 99 partners in men's doubles. Any plans on who will be your 100th partner?
Yes, there are couple of plans. I have got two already confirmed as my 100th and 101st partner. I am not allowed to speak about it right now; when the time is right, I will. But I have had such a blessed career to not only have 99 partners, but some of the greatest friends in my life. Winning Grand Slams with people, winning major events with people, being on the tennis court and handing triumph and defeat shows you different shades of everyone’s personality.
I have been so blessed to have these different partners, to grow and learn with them. Every one of those partners have had a different personality, some speciality to them, some uniqueness. Some are leaders, some are followers, some are shy, some are very aggressive, some are forthright; they communicate very well. Some don’t know how to communicate at all. The important part for me was to adapt to these different people and that’s been the best learning for me, to keep enhancing my personality to these different partners, to adapt.
Will we see your 100th partner at a special tournament like Wimbledon?
I don’t know yet, but it will be something special. That’s for sure.
Among the 99 partners, who was your most special one?
Everyone has been special in their own way. I have played with partners who have come straight out of college, so I had to nurture them; I have played with partners who have been some of the greatest names of the game and I had to follow with them. I think everyone left their unique mark on me in the fact that whether we won or lost I have learnt something new from them. It has taught my personality to adapt to different situations and different people.
After a disappointing 2014 you must be relieved at making such a smashing start to this year?
It’s been a hell of a start to the season. It’s been a phenomenal start to the year. First three tournaments and three finals. I was actually speaking to my fitness coach and mental coach and they told me, ‘listen now, you need to pace yourself because you are playing a lot of tennis’.
For me, it’s been a great start to the year: Chennai Open final, winner in Auckland, winner of the mixed doubles at the Australian Open Grand Slam.
2015 has already started and the first month has already been better than the whole year of 2014. So that’s reinforcement; the effort and the hard work that the team is doing already, both on and off the court, is very good.
Which player do you like to follow among the current lot?
I have gone through a generation of players and right now the one that I love following a lot is Novak Djokovic. The way he conducts his life away from the professional match court -- like in the gym, on the track, with his diet -- he has changed all that. You look at his body;, it is incredible! He is a specimen. He has had glutten allergy, he has gotten away from that; you see his legs buckling sometimes he gets over it. He has hired the right people, bringing in Boris Becker, but he has also kept his old coach [Marian] Vajda, who has helped him to get to where he is right now. The way he goes about his career is like, if you work hard you get the results.
There is a lot going on off the court for you. Considering that, how tough was it to focus on the tennis and end up winning the Australian Open title?
The beginning of 2015 has been an excellent start to the year. It is a great boost in the belief, the hard work, that the team is putting in. The team is working really hard, whether it is Gitika [Taraporewala] here with handling all the PR both on and off the court. They allow me to focus on what I have to do. My coaches -- Rick Leach, Sanjay Singh, Dave Herman -- they work so hard taking time away from their family to travel on the road with me to better my career. The way that I conduct my life is in respect to all these people in my team.
I am very blessed to have been with this team for years and years now. That’s the beauty of life and for me it is that excellence happens, magic happens, you win great events, you create wonderful things. But my biggest achievement as a human being has been to have great people around me and that’s why I am who I am.