Leander and a golden oldie

LONG after he is done with tennis as a playing professional, perhaps a good 30 or 40 years from now, should he be queried by his grandchildren about the greatest moments of his career, Leander Adrian Paes will surely recall Wimbledon 2003.

NIRMAL SHEKAR

LONG after he is done with tennis as a playing professional, perhaps a good 30 or 40 years from now, should he be queried by his grandchildren about the greatest moments of his career, Leander Adrian Paes will surely recall Wimbledon 2003.

Leander Paes and the ageless Martina Navratilova, the Wimbledon mixed doubles winners. This was Martina's 20th title at Wimbledon and it helped her equal Billie Jean King's record. As for Leander, he is happy enough to be Martina's "vehicle to greatness." — Pic. MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES-

For a man who has accomplished quite a lot as a singles player in Davis Cup and is an Olympic bronze medallist too, a mixed doubles title in a Grand Slam would, normally, be way down the list of accomplishments.

But, of all the things he's done in his career, of all the many highs, few would perhaps match the thrill he's experienced in playing alongside the greatest woman ever to wield a tennis racket.

"You are right. When I look back on my career long years from now, this will surely be a high point. For me, it is a privilege to play with her. I watched her win Slams as a kid and I idolised her. I never would have believed then I would be playing with her one day, and winning Grand Slam titles," said Paes.

The Wimbledon title which Paes and Navratilova won was the pair's second Grand Slam title this year, following last January's Australian Open. And the latest success saw the great lady tie Billie Jean King's record of 20 Wimbledon titles.

Then again, Navaratilova's record is by far superior for two reasons: first, she won a record nine singles titles, an achievement unlikely to be matched at any time; second, she has managed to win a title at an age (46) when most women will be sitting in the stands anxiously watching their son or daughter play.

It was by sheer accident that Paes and Navratilova came together at the U.S. Open last year. Paes was without a partner and so was Navratilova. "I was standing there outside the locker room and there she comes and says, 'Hey, Lea, you are playing with me."

Paes was pleasantly surprised. They didn't do much in their first event together but really got going in Melbourne.

"In the French, we lost to a good pair but here again it was incredible," said Navratilova.

Cheered by a huge crowd _ much bigger than anything you might expect to see for a mixed doubles match _ on the centre court, Paes and Navratilova were seldom troubled in the final, and this only hours after playing their semifinal in the afternoon.

At 46, to play two matches in a span of five or six hours! Mind-boggling indeed.

But, then, we are talking about a very special kind of woman, a truly extraordinary athlete here.

Navratilova won her first Wimbledon title _ a ladies doubles crown in 1976 _ when Paes was just three years old. Now, Paes is himself 30 and with a combined age of 76, these two gifted players have beaten teams that are 20 to 30 years younger.

"I have always believed you are as old as you think you are. If you can take care of your body and focus on what you want to achieve, I am sure you can do it," says Navratilova.

For the great lady, it is not about records anymore. She says she doesn't think about matching someone's record or breaking someone else's.

"That's not the motivation. When I first came in, it was all about winning. It was Me, Me, Me. Not now. Now I do it because I still love hitting the ball and competing. The fans love it too when I am there and this gives me a lift," she says.

Navratilova says that the response to her latest comeback and her successes has been phenomenal.

"Kids who can't get my name right email me. On ski lifts, in shopping malls, young men and women, middle-aged ladies, all say that they are inspired by what I am doing. It is amazing how people can be inspired by someone hitting a yellow tennis ball at 46," she says.

Simply hitting a ball at 46? She must be kidding, of course.

As well as Paes played at Wimbledon _ winning crucial points with superb volleying and serving well for the most part _ Navratilova's was a considerable presence on the court.

She still has a wonderful touch at the net and her reflexes are marvellous for someone her age. What is more, she covers the court like a 30-year-old.

"The chemistry between us is great. That is the key. The key to success in doubles is finding the right partner," says Navratilova.

For Paes, it is a different feeling altogether. He is truly inspired by the presence of the great lady beside him and says that he is happy enough to be her "vehicle to greatness."

Navratilova, who has a record 170 singles titles and 125 doubles titles in her career, is now four short of Margaret Court's record of 62 Grand Slam titles. But the number doesn't concern her.

For, this time, it is a different kind of journey for the great lady. It is about enjoying herself and raising the bar further.

Anyway, the bar is already so high that it is unlikely that any woman would ever accomplish what Navratilova has in her remarkable career spanning 30 years.

Meanwhile, for Paes, it was a wonderfully successful Wimbledon altogether. He made the semifinals of the men's doubles event with David Rikl, where the pair lost to Mahesh Bhupathi and Max Mirnyi.

Bhupathi and Mirnyi looked very good in that match but failed to recapture that form in the final where they were beaten in four sets by Jonas Bjorkman and Todd Woodbridge, the Australian matching the all time doubles record with his eighth title.

In the junior events, there was disappointment for India in singles as Karan Rastogi, Somdev Dev Varman, Sana Bhambri and Sania Mirza failed to make an impression, Mirza alone winning a solitary round.

But there was success for Mirza in girls' doubles where she and Alisa Kleybanova of Russia won the title beating Ally Baker and I.Ichim of the United States in the final.

The last woman to play in a Wimbledon final from India was Rita Davar who lost the girls singles final in 1952.

Navratilova's Grand Slam titles Singles (18): Australian Open: 1981, 1983, 1985. French Open: 1982, 1984. Wimbledon: 1978-79, 1982-87, 1990. U.S. Open: 1983-84, 1986-87. Women's Doubles (31):

Australian Open: 1980 (with Betsy Nagelsen); 1982-85, 1987-89 (with Pam Shriver).

French Open: 1975 (with Chris Evert), 1982 (with Anne Smith), 1984-85, 1987-88 (with Shriver), 1986 (with Andrea Temesvari).

Wimbledon: 1976 (with Evert), 1979 (with Billie Jean King), 1981-84, 1986 (with Shriver).

U.S. Open: 1977 (with Betty Stove), 1978, 1980 (with King), 1983-1984, 1986-87 (with Shriver), 1989 (with Hana Mandlikova), 1990 (with Gigi Fernandez).

Mixed Doubles (9): Australian Open: 2003 (with Leander Paes).

French Open: 1974 (with Ivan Molina), 1985 (with Heinz Gunthardt).

Wimbledon: 1985 (with Paul McNamee), 1993 (with Mark Woodforde), 1995 (with Jonathan Stark), 2003 (with Leander Paes).

U.S. Open: 1985 (with Heinz Gunthardt), 1987 (with Emilio Sanchez).