He’s blessed with an astrologer’s conviction when matching his own doubles tennis horoscope with his playing partners. Some times intuitive, at other times analytical when plotting a pairing, Leander Paes has also picked a clutch of anecdotes over the course of 15 years on the doubles circuit, spanning over 100 partners. Heading into the London Olympics as the only automatic qualifier, the Indian ace will soon be making yet another set of inspired decisions in search of elusive doubles medals for the country. SMRITI SINHA quizzes him on partnerships beyond the well-documented one with Mahesh Bhupathi, and finds an assortment of characters lurking in the folds of history. This includes a Frenchman with a penchant for hiding in Paes’s locker and leaping at him just for laughs and another who meticulously wore socks of two distinct colours.
‘Never play the ad court again. Ever’
The partner who changed me from ad court to deuce:
Nicolas Pereira, (1995, 96)
I had huge respect for Nico, who was the No. 1 junior in the world. He was one of my closest confidantes on the tour, so when he asked me to play doubles with him in New Haven (1995), there was no way I was going to say ‘no’. But I forgot one small detail — which side was I going to play on? Those days in Davis Cup and even otherwise I used to play ad court. So when we got to the court and he exclaimed ‘Lee, where are you standing? I play the ad court.’
I told him, but I’ve always played ad court. He said, ‘but my backhand is better than yours.’ I said I agreed on that but I had earlier reached the semifinals at the US Open playing on ad court side, the quarterfinals at Australian Open again on ad court and I’d never played the deuce court. But he was convinced and I started on the deuce. We won the first set 7-6 and there were no breaks exchanged. During the changeover, I said to him I am very uncomfortable on deuce and let’s still change sides. But he was insistent and convinced that, that was what was best for me. Playing with each other for the first time, we reached the final in that tournament and Nico told me: ‘Lee, you have the best inside-out forehand in the world. That shot will get you Grand Slams, don’t ever play the ad court again’.
‘He came out of retirement to play with me’
Most accommodating partner: Martin Damm (2005, 06, 07)
Martin has been the most accommodating because he was going to retire when I asked him to play with me and he dropped the idea of pulling the shutters. I called him up (2005) and said, ‘Martin, let’s play the US Open together’ and he said ‘Lee, don’t you know? This is my last month, I’m retiring.’ I stressed that he has a Grand Slam in him and he is leaving a lot on the table. He said ‘I haven’t won one in 20 years of trying. What makes you think you are going to change that?’ Though I convinced him, we lost in the first round of the US Open. But in the next Slam — Australian Open (2006), we reached the final and were set up against the Bryans. Within 12 months of asking him to partner me and forcing him to come out of retirement, I had taken him to two Grand Slam finals and we won the second one — US Open in 2006. That was an emotional moment because I’d convinced him to play the US Open with me, and then we went on to win it.
Even otherwise, he would listen to everything I said, even my crazy ideas. Trust me, I had a lot of those!
‘We met on a flight and decided to sign-up’
Most unplanned partnership: Devin Bowen, (1996)
Before the Olympics that year in Atlanta, I was playing a lot of singles and I was on the Latin American swing to Columbia, Sao Paulo, Brazil. My first stop was Salinas in Ecuador and I had no specific plans of playing doubles. But I met Devin Bowen on my flight there and we got talking, and he told me ‘I’m going to the tournament but I have no clue where I can stay, I have no accommodation, nowhere to go…’ The organisers had told him that if he entered the draw with a partner for doubles, then he could be included for tournament hospitality’s official accommodation. I suggested we go sign up together and that’s how it happened. So, when we landed in Ecuador, he had a doubles partner and a place to stay!
‘He would wear two different coloured socks’
Most superstitious partner: Todd Nelson (1992, 93)
Everyone has different rituals and I believe that tennis partnerships are not just on the court. When I come across someone with new, different ideas, I try to re-mould myself to them, their belief in religion, spirituality. And Todd had some very bizarre superstitions. He would sometimes come to the court in bicycle shorts and would even play in them. Most times he would be wearing different colour socks and he was very particular about them — one had to be white, one had to be black, sometimes grey and white. I would observe him, I saw his results. I didn’t have to ask whether it worked or not!
‘His looks said ‘Lee, you’ve lost the plot here’.’
Most extempore partnership: Stephen Huss, (2002)
With Stephen it has to be the most spontaneous, the most intuitive. He was sitting some tables away from me in the players dining in the French Open and I go up to him and say Stephen will you play the Wimbledon this month with me? Now, he was ranked around 80 in doubles rankings and I was in the world top-10. I’d reached the Roland Garros semifinal and there I was, asking him to partner me. He gave me a look that said ‘Lee, you’ve lost the plot here.’
Then he actually told me that I didn’t know what I was saying and I’d lost my head. But he had been playing some Challengers on clay before Paris and I had faced him in another tournament I’d won. I had felt that there could be a spark in us. I told him to trust me, that we could create some magic together and that he could win a Grand Slam. He asked me, ‘Lee, is this some kind of a bad prank?’
Though I convinced him, at Wimbledon we lost a very close five-setter in the first round. Three years later Huss came back to win the Wimbledon with Wesley Moodie and they beat the Bryans in the final, so my gut feeling about him was just a couple of years off.
‘Something sprang from the locker: My partner!’
Most quirky partner: Michael Llodra (2002)
I think Mikey definitely has to be the most quirky. He had a crazy sense of humour. He would plan pranks on me, like he would lock himself up in my locker area with the help of the locker room in-charge. I would come back from a long practice session, everything would seem normal, the lock intact and there – I open it and something huge sprang on me. He had jumped on me and I would be left gaping. Jonas Bjorkman was also very funny, his thought process was very quirky and that translated on the court when we played together.
‘Best doubles partner I’ve ever had’
Most fun, most talented: Radek Stepanek (2004, 06, 12)
There is no doubt that I have shared the best of moments with Radek. He is full of energy and is great fun to be with. We have such a good time playing together, with a drive, with a passion that we ended up winning our first ever tournament together (2004, Delray Beach).
He is not only the most fun, he is also the best doubles partner I’ve ever had, the most talented. He gives it his all. We came together this year not for a week or so but with a full commitment and I told him that the Australian Open and the ATP World Tour Masters is all that’s lacking in my career, and he said ‘Partner, I’ll give you my all to reach there.’ And it happened in Melbourne. I’m usually the one leading the team but Radek’s tennis brain is very knowledgeable. He has taught me a lot.
‘He was a great host, showed me around Prague’
Favourite travel partner: David Rikl (2002, 03, 04)
Usually I am the one driving all my partners to the places we visit, taking them to absorb the soul and the essence of the cities. But with David I had a breathtaking experience of visiting his city Prague in the Czech Republic. He was a great host. I reach the airport and chauffeur-driven cars await me, all my luggage is taken care of.
He took me to amazing parts of Prague, specially the downtown part of the city where he showed me the old heritage buildings which had a unique aspect — they were maintained by corporate houses. David and I played and traveled all over Europe together — Switzerland, France, Germany, England, Italy, Monaco, The Netherlands. Those days David had an amazing set of wheels complete with a latest set of navigation system and I had my international driver’s licence. We would put any address on the navigator and just drive down there.
‘You need to understand your partner’s DNA’
Most talkative partner: Martina Navratilova (2003, 04, 05, 06)
Can I say the chattiest was Martina (Navratilova)? She never stopped talking! She was non-stop jabber jabber jabber but you could keep listening to her and never get tired because her words were full of amazing knowledge. It was great to be able to spend all that time that I did with her while playing together because she readily imparted with all her experience. She taught me that tennis partnerships are not just on the court. She taught me the ability to communicate with your partners. To be able to do well with someone, you have to give yourself completely to them, understand how they view life and believe in their perspective. There has to be a lot of mutual respect, and not just on court. You have to understand your partner’s DNA.