It was the first Thursday of the 1993 US Open, 24 years to the day on Saturday, when Leander Paes made his US Open main draw debut.
He walked out onto a court that no longer exists, partnering a player that has now been retired for 16 years. A lush circular park then stood where Arthur Ashe Stadium currently looms over the grounds – a facility that didn’t have Billie Jean King’s name attached to it for more than a decade.
And on Friday, the 44-year-old Indian – the oldest player at the US Open – was back in action in New York again, his 14th consecutive trip to Flushing Meadows and his 20th in the past 21 years.
“You have to be passionate about what you do,” Paes said after his first-round men’s doubles match with countryman Purav Raja. “Tennis is a phenomenal sport we have, and to call it our job? We’re really lucky. It’s a privilege to have this life.
“I love my sport. I love the late-night workouts. I love waking up in the morning, knowing Purav is by my side and we’re going to help each other out through thick and thin. Whether you win, lose or something in between, it doesn’t matter. You’re together as a team. That camaraderie you share with your partner becomes a brotherhood. That camaraderie you share with each other families becomes a team. The power of the team creates the power on the court. That’s what I love.”
Paes won the US Open boys’ singles title as an 18-year-old in 1991 but lost in the qualifying tournament for the men’s singles competition in the two years that followed. More than losing in the final round of 1992 qualies, the thing he remembers the most is getting lost in the parking lot for an hour, eventually climbing over a fence to get into the site so he could change for his match.
Paes’ first taste of the main draw came in the doubles competition of the 1993 tournament. Partnering Canadian Sebastien Lareau on Court 21, he was playing in just his second-ever Grand Slam match after losing in the first round of the men’s doubles at Wimbledon earlier that year.
But out of nowhere, the unseeded, unheralded duo of Paes and Lareau provided one upset after another on their way to the semifinals.
“I was playing the ad court back then,” Paes recalled. “Sebastian had an unbelievably world-class backhand. He just played the deuce court and he kept on winning every point on the deuce court and I made some returns and we won. But I remember back then it was a different style of play. I’ve had to adjust to so many partners and that’s what makes tennis fun for me to keep remodeling my game to suit my partners’ best and bring the best out in them.”
Paes hasn’t had to scale a wire fence to play another match in New York ever since.
Paes' run to the semifinal 24 years ago was the start of his love affair with New York City and the US Open.
In the almost two-and-a-half decades since then, the 44-year-old has had some of his most memorable moments in the Big Apple. He won men’s doubles titles in 2006, 2009 and 2013 with Martin Damm, Lukas Dlohny and Radek Stepanek, respectively. He also won mixed doubles crowns in 2008 with Cara Black and, most recently, in 2015 with Martina Hingis. Between five titles and seven other finals appearances, Paes has plenty of reasons to love New York City.
“The fans in New York are some of the greatest fans,” Paes said. “It’s the energy of the place. It’s just a live wire. You can really tap into it. I’ve had some great matches with [Andre] Agassi here on the old Armstrong court. I had a good ’93 semifinal on Court No. 1 where I won my junior singles final, and I remember Wilt Chamberlain was watching back in ’91.”
Paes, the only tennis player to ever compete in seven Olympics, has 55 career doubles titles to his name, including 26 with Mahesh Bhupathi – a team that earned the nickname the Indian Express. As a testament to his doubles prowess, Paes has achieved the career Grand Slam in both men’s doubles and mixed doubles.
On Friday in New York, Paes partnered with the 31-year-old Raja, who was just 11 years old when Paes made his Flushing Meadows debut.
The duo first played together in 2013 in the first round of an Asia/Oceania Group I Davis Cup tie against Korea in New Delhi. Raja was Paes’ 92nd men’s doubles partner, a list that has since expanded to 118 men with the latest addition of 20-year-old Alexander Zverev in Cincinnati last month. If you include females in mixed doubles tournaments, Paes has partnered 143 other players.
“If we can create some magic like the old Indian Express created, we have a new Indian Express rolling into town,” Paes said. “The old makes way for the new and if we can create some history like that, that’s my dream.”
Watching Paes in person is a treat in itself. From the bleachers, you can hear the way fans speak in superlative and you can get a sense for his movement and touch that you don’t necessarily get from TV.
"He's the best doubles player I've ever seen,” one fan said to the strangers sat in the rows in front and behind him in the Court 12 bleachers.
“Watch his hands. He has the softest hands,” said another, gesturing with his arms, twisting his wrists so his palms were up, then down, then facing his body.
At 44, Paes’ game is not made for power and certainly not for speed. But in doubles, that’s not necessarily a prerequisite for success. The game is determined as much by court positioning, feel and tactics, and in that regard, there are few players – his age or younger – that ply their craft better.
On serve Friday, Paes had zero aces and zero double faults, but his placement was perfect and one-quarter of his serves never got returned – impressive numbers against former world No. 8 Tisparevic and No. 12 Troicki. On the return game, you see Paes swaying gently side to side a foot behind the baseline, double-tapping first his left foot, then his right, slowly leaning forward as he jumps into a split step. His anticipation is remarkable, surpassed only by athleticism which belies his age.
When Raja was serving and Paes was at the net, you watch Paes straddle the center line, placing his left hand behind his back and signaling both serve direction and his own movement. From the deuce court, a flick of the pinky twice indicates a serve out wide and Paes following the ball in that direction. If he flashes his pinky then his forefinger, the serve is still going wide, but Paes is going to his right, usually after a stutter step or a head feint left.
That’s drastically over-simplifying the approach, of course, but you get the idea.
“It’s been a while since I played with someone who understands doubles this intuitively,” Paes said of Raja. “The last one I can remember would be Radek Stepanek, who I won with in 2013. To have that on the same side of the court gives me a lot of peace of mind, a lot of comfortability that I can play my regular type of doubles that has allowed me to get to 35 Grand Slam finals.”
That could soon be 36 if Paes continues to showcase his complete repertoire, as he did in Round 1. A flick of the wrist that rolled a forehand down the doubles alley in the opening game; a half-volley pickup that he sent for a winner; an angled drop shot at 3-3 in the second set from a seemingly impossible position at the net; a pair of forehand returns winners in which he created space with his footwork and guided the ball past Tipsarevic at the net despite not taking a full swing at either ball.
Those shots, full of touch, experience and finesse, are what Paes has become known for. And they’re what had a large and enthusiastic New York crowd applauding his every move.
Back home, Paes is a national treasure. He has a medallion from when he was presented with Indian’s highest sporting honor, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, in 1997; a scroll which accompanied the Arjuna Award for representing his country with distinction; and medals from the Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, the third- and fourth-highest civilian awards the Indian government presents.
“I think it’s a reflection of the years of hard work by my team,” said Paes, who has a Twitter following of more than 1 million despite being born three decades before the term Twitter was even coined. “I wouldn’t be who I am without my parents or my sister or my team – Sanjay Singh, Dave Herman, Rick Leach, Bob Carmichael, James Dicker. It’s unbelievable. They’ve all done so much for me. Every one of these accolades has their names engraved on it. Every one of my trophies has their names engraved on it.
“There are so many Indians here in New York. We’re lucky that the tennis-playing community has been able to transcend the Indian community. Whenever we go, we have such a big following. It’s almost like a responsibility for us to bring people some happiness through our brand of tennis.
“Tennis is the second biggest sport in India after cricket and I guess some of us are responsible for the growth in tennis and we continue to be. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a big responsibility and a great honor to represent my country. My parents did it in basketball and field hockey. For me, I grew up playing for the blue. To play for India is the greatest joy that I’ve ever had in my career and I will ever have in my life. To do it for 1.3 billion Indians? It’s magic.”