By John Delong
One of our champions is also the US Open champion.
That’s right, Leander Paes has followed up his 2013 Winston-Salem Open doubles title by teaming with Radek Stepanek to win this year’s US Open men’s doubles crown.
The 40-year-old India native claimed the eighth Grand Slam men’s doubles title of his career and his 53rd doubles title overall with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over the second-seeded team of Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares.
That came after Paes and Stepanek had knocked off Bob and Mike Bryan in the semifinals, ending the Bryan brothers’ chances at a calendar-year Grand Slam.
Paes had teamed with Daniel Nestor to win the WSO crown two weeks ago, at a time when Stepanek took a week off to make sure he was fully healthy for the Open. Stepanek had missed almost four months earlier this year after undergoing spinal surgery for neck problems.
The soft-spoken Paes, who made his first Winston-Salem appearance back in 2001 in the Davis Cup World Group Qualifier between the United States and India, has been effusive in his praise of Stepanek.
"I can’t say enough about my partner," Paes said. "What he has been through this year, both he and I know. For me, that will come with me to my grave, and I will always be with him in his corner no matter where we go in our lives, no matter what we did. I think that’s what gives us strength on the court.
"The way he’s recovered, the way he’s done his rehab, the way he’s stayed with it, to me, along with some other adversities this year, shows off a great champion that he is. Beginning of the year when he got injured I got lots of phone calls to play with other guys. But that’s not what you do. What you do is you stand by your partner. I have tremendous belief in him, and he’s really shown that belief coming good. I’m very proud of the partner I share the court with. He’s probably the best partner I have had. I really enjoy playing with him."
That’s high praise since Paes had a longtime partnership with countryman Mahesh Bhupathi and has also teamed with Lukas Dlouhy and Martin Damm – also Czechs – to win Grand Slam doubles titles. Paes joked that the key to winning Grand Slams was to have a Czech for a partner.
Paes’ other Grand Slam titles have been the 2012 Australian Open with Stepanek – which completed Paes’ personal career Grand Slam – the 2009 US Open with Dlouhy, Roland Garros in 2009 with Dlouhy, the 2006 US Open with Damm, Roland Garros in 2001 with Bhupathi, Wimbledon in 1999 with Bhupathi and Roland Garros in 1999 with Bhupathi.
"This one is actually really, really special," Paes said. "For me, this one if probably even more special than the Australian Open win. In Australia I was going for a career slam, and that was something Radek worked so hard to do. We achieved it, he did it for me, and that was pretty special.
"This one really means a lot to me because through this year we both had to handle a lot of adversity. I have always said that tennis is such a blessed profession for us, that you build friendship, you build camaraderie, you build a brotherhood. For me to win this trophy after the year Radek had is just something I will never forget. It’s way up there with some of the best Grand Slams I have ever won."
Paes’ victory in Winston-Salem with Knowles was his first of the year. He and Nestor beat Julien Knowle and WSO singles champ Jurgen Melzer in the first round, Paul Hanley and John Peers in the quarterfinals, Eric Butorac and Frederik Nielsen in the semifinals, and Treat Huey and Dominic Inglot in the finals.
Paes will now look to add the final crowning achievement to his resume in the ATP World Tour finals, which he and Stepanek are now qualified for.
"That’s the trophy which is missing in Leander’s showcase," Stepanek said. "That’s what I’m very focused on. That’s what I would like to deliver."
Paes emphasized that he is NOT nearing the end of his career. He’s talking about playing for years to come.
"The cardinal rule my father taught me when I was a kid is to look to get better every day," Paes said. "We both come from humble backgrounds and come from countries where tennis wasn’t necessarily the No. 1 sport. We both fought against adversity to get to where we are. So age is just a number for us. Age is something we look at and we smile. For us, we really take it very seriously to go out and get better every day and push each other.
"We are definitely not done. I’m going after 41 now, 42, and then 43."