India's Leander Paes is still going strong at 37, an age when most tennis stars have retired from the regular tour. He is not that well known because his specialty is doubles. After reaching the finals in either doubles or mixed doubles in the last eight Grand Slam tennis tournaments, Paes has set his sights on another title at next month's U.S. Open.
Leander Paes is a physical specimen. Born in Kolcata (Calcutta), India in 1973, the tennis star credits his athletic frame to years of heavy lifting, cross-training and yoga. And, of course, genetics.
"I grew up in a family of athletes," said Leander Paes. "My dad played field hockey for India in the '72 Olympics. He got a bronze medal. And my mom captained the Indian basketball team. For me, speed is of the essence and given the God-given talents that I've got and the genetics that I've got with my parents, it was a no-brainer that sport was going to be it."
His self-described "tree-trunk legs" have been helping him speed along tennis court baselines since he was ranked the world's number-one junior player. Paes was 17 when he joined India's Davis Cup team, and today he holds his country's record for most total wins by any player.
After turning pro in 1991, the Indian star went on to win the bronze medal in singles tennis at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and ranked as high as 73rd in the world. But as time caught up with Paes, he evolved into a doubles specialist.
"I find that as one gets older, one kind of picks and chooses one's battles," he said. "And I think that at my age now - I'm 37 now - and to continue playing singles, being a serve-and-volleyer on slow courts, slow conditions, slow balls, is not the smartest thing to do, you know. For me, I had a great singles career when I was younger, and now I'm just focused on doubles."
Often teamed with compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi, the two became one of the top doubles pairings in the world. In 2001, the players received their country's highest honor, the Padma Shri, which goes to Indian citizens in recognition of their distinguished service to the nation.
In recent years, Paes has enjoyed tremendous success in doubles regardless of his playing partner, male or female. The doubles format seems to fit his playing style perfectly, and Paes always saves his best for when it matters most.
"You know, for me, I've been really blessed to have gotten to the finals of the last eight Grand Slams in a row, whether it's in doubles or mixed doubles," said Paes. "So, for me, to perform at the Grand Slams is really my focus."
The next Grand Slam tournament is the U. S. Open in New York. The tournament, which Paes calls one of his "greatest hunting grounds", opens August 30. He believes his past success at the U.S. Open is due in part to the aura of Flushing Meadows and the uniqueness of playing in New York.
"Last year I was in the finals of the doubles and the mixed doubles," he said. "I won the doubles, lost in the finals of the mixed. Both the last two years, I've been in the finals of the doubles and the mixed doubles and split them. So, for me, the U.S. Open just speaks of a lot of craziness, a lot of hyper-kinetic energy in the stadium, and I kind of thrive on that."
Leander Paes has already won two grand slam tennis titles this year, taking the mixed doubles crown with Zimbabwe's Cara Black at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. That put him ahead of his ex-doubles partner and compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi with a total of 12 grand slam titles. Paes is looking forward to trying to add to that total at next month's U.S. Open.