Think of great doubles players and inevitably one thinks of pairs: McEnroe and Fleming, Woodforde and Woodbridge and the Bryan brothers. On the women’s side, you have Navratilova and Shriver and the Williams sisters.
After all, a good doubles team is like a good marriage – the partners stick together for years, come to understand each others strengths and weaknesses and learn to complement each other.
And then there’s Leander Paes.
On Sunday, Paes won the mixed-doubles title at Wimbledon with Martina Hingis to give him 16 Grand Slam titles in his career – eight in men’s doubles and eighth in mixed. Yet its difficult to associate him with any one partner – either in the men’s or the mixed doubles.
Last month Paes reached a century of partners in the men’s game, by itself not unusual. He is the 47th player to do so. But he is, however, the First player to do it and win over 50 titles and 700 matches.
He has won Grand Slams with four different male partners, starting with the French Open and Wimbledon with Mahesh Bhupathi in 1999. More success came with Martin Damm, Lukas Dlouhy and Radek Stepanek. Of these four, Paes is most strongly linked with Bhupathi and Stepanek, but aside from the rise of Bhupathi and Paes in 1999, when they reached the finals at all four Grand Slams, it is hard to pick out a signature moment that could represent a career.
Paes has also had 24 partners in mixed doubles, winning Grand Slam titles with four of them – Lisa Raymond, Martina Navratilova, Cara Black and Martina Hingis - while reaching finals with two others.
In this regard, Paes is unique in having so much success while chopping and changing as much as he has. It is a tribute to his ability not only to pick the right partners but to mesh with them quickly so they produce their best on the court.
He has proven over the years that he has the ability to gel with players from diverse backgrounds and ages. Raymond was 25 when she won Wimbledon with Paes in 1999. On the other end of the scale, Navratilova was 47 when she and Paes won Wimbledon just four years later.
What connects them is they are both excellent doubles players. Raymond is a former World No. 1 in women’s doubles and Navratilova is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. That they also chose to play with Paes is a testimony to what they thought of his abilities too. It was Navratilova who insisted that Paes partner her and not the other way around.
On the court, Paes has a knack for making his partners feel like a million bucks. Hingis has repeatedly mentioned about she feels invincible on court with Paes by her side
“Leander has been there and done that before. He has given me a lot of confidence and we have a great chemistry,” Hingis said after winning the Australian Open.
Their chemistry came up repeatedly in commentary on Sunday as they destroyed their helpless opponents in straight sets.
It is this chameleon-like ability to merge with whomever is by his side on the court that has allowed Paes to build arguably the greatest professional tennis career of any Indian, with due respect to Vijay Amritaj and the Krishnan family. And why he has been able to win Grand Slams into his 40s and across three different decades.
"The first thing is to know yourself really well,” Paes said after winning the Australian Open mixed doubles with Hingis in January this year. “If you know yourself really well and you're honest with yourself about your strengths and more importantly your weaknesses, then you choose a partner whose strengths are your weaknesses.”
It is arguable that nobody in doubles has done that so well, as often as Leander Paes.