Leander Paes has eased past the milestone of his 40th birthday, made a car wreck of a Bollywood movie and overcome brain surgery, but nothing beats his 20-year love affair with New York.
The Indian star reached the US Open men’s doubles final with his partner Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic on Thursday with a smooth display matched only by his exuberance at his post-match news conference. This is Paes’ 20th year as a professional at the US Open, a tournament where he had already been a junior champion in 1990 and where he learned to grow up faster than other boys his age.
It was a process encouraged by his father Vece, a 1972 Olympic Games bronze medalist with the Indian hockey team.
“I was a young little Indian kid coming from Calcutta who was trying to see whether I could make it on the pro tour,” Paes said after he and Stepanek had ended the calendar Grand Slam hopes of American brothers Bob and Mike Bryan. “I played the junior final and there were amazing experiences. I took the No. 6 train from Grand Central into Queen’s. My father was trying to make a man out of me and put me on a train going out to train with the Columbia college team down on 283rd Street where they have the practice site. Thank God that was the only time I had to make that ride. New York is a great city. The culture, the melting pot of society, what New York stands for, the resilience that the people have here in the city is phenomenal.”
That resilience became even more apparent for Paes after 9/11. He recalls being in the shopping mall inside the Twin Towers the night before the terrorist attacks that toppled the New York landmarks. The memories of that day are so raw that Paes can even remember what he bought and where he was going.
“I still have a receipt. I bought some khaki pants. I was going back to India for a birthday for three days before coming back to Winston-Salem for Davis Cup. “I was there probably 10 hours before it happened. The resilience that New Yorkers show is the reason I love this city. I lived here for four and a half to be exact. It’s awesome.”
Paes is the senior citizen of the tour, but has also taken time out to make a widely-panned Bollywood film, playing the role of a gangster. His achievements on tennis courts make far more pleasing reading than reviews for his acting talents. He has won 52 doubles titles, including two in New York in 2006 and 2009 with Lukas Dlouhy; Stepanek, 34, has been a beaten finalist twice, in 2002 with Jiri Novak and 2012 with Paes.
The two men, who have formed a close friendship and have even developed an energetic ‘crab dance’ to celebrate their wins, have both battled health issues before returning to the sport. Paes underwent surgery on his brain in 2003 while Stepanek, famously once engaged to Martina Hingis, required an operation on his spine which sidelined him for three months this year.
Paes refers to New York as Gotham while Stepanek works the Flushing Meadows crowd, wearing a shirt bearing a gaudy design of the Manhattan