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Quick Step To The Top

DEUCE

Paes, Stepanek© Getty ImagesRadek Stepanek and Leander Paes have quickly become one of the tour's most dangerous duos, capturing the Australian Open title on their team's major debut.

Leander Paes has always had locker room respect, but when he teamed up with Radek Stepanek for 2012, doubles teams got twitchy. Within 28 days of the new season, their fears were realised - a great team has been formed.

Leander Paes has formed five great partnerships in his 23 seasons as a pro. First there was his Indian compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi, then David Rikl, Martin Damm, Lukas Dlouhy and now Radek Stepanek. Maybe he has an affinity with Czechs? Only Paes knows. “They all had great returns,” Paes told DEUCE. “Because their returns are so good and I was at the net - my net game is not bad - we put a lot of pressure on our opponents serves. When you put pressure on your opponents serve, that is when cracks start opening up. With each and every one of my partners, we’ve been an amazing team.”

“It was just a question of when they would click”

So what else does it take to play with Paes? He admitted, “It takes an innate understanding of the person I am partnering. An understanding of the human being, in the way he or she reacts. When they handle adversity, a tough point, on a show court with the whole world watching or Court 18. Also, you need an understanding of their tennis skills, their strengths and weaknesses. I have always looked to play with players whose strengths are my weaknesses. And my strengths are their weaknesses. Then I think you are covering all the angles, 360 degrees. What does it take for someone to play well with me? I think an open mind. Someone who enjoys working hard, the rest will come. It is just a matter of time.”

Time is what Paes doesn’t have. A lifelong practitioner of yoga, he recently turned 39. Neither does Stepanek, who wants to maximise the time he has on the singles court, at 33 years of age. Seven long seasons ago, they contemplated becoming a full-time team. They won their first title in September 2004 at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships, then made a brief cameo 24 months later at the 2006 Internazionali BNL d’Italia, but until they teamed up for the 2012 season, their words were pure fantasy.

Paes, StepanekStepanek, who reached the 2002 US Open final with Jiri Novak, explained to DEUCE, “We had such great chemistry on the court in Delray Beach and our game styles matched well together. We were discussing such a partnership back in late 2004, but at that time I did well [at the BNP Paribas Masters] in Paris and made a huge jump in the singles [South African Airways ATP] rankings. I felt for the next four or five months I ought to work hard. I’d been waiting all my life for such an opportunity, so I had to make the call to Leander and say ‘sorry’. I had been thinking very deeply about it. I was shaking when I called him and I remember him being annoyed. But he had great respect and understood I had worked so hard on my singles to get close to the top.”

In November last year, the clock was ticking louder. Faster. Paes, fresh from parting ways with Bhupathi, wanted to win more majors. “I was looking to complete the Grand Slam.” Stepanek’s premise, for re-establishing the partnership in 2012, was simple. “‘There are two things we are going to focus on,’” he told Paes. “‘One, is to win the Australian Open, because you have never won that. And second, the year-end championships, because you haven’t won that.’” Paes also made a promise. “At the start of the year, I promised Radek that in three months I would get him into the Top 20,” he said. Each time Stepanek stepped onto a double courts, he said, “I’ll give you everything to help you reach your goals.” Neither knew that two of their goals would be achieved by 28 January.

That Saturday, Paes and Stepanek contested the Australian Open doubles final. “The energy Stepanek had in the final was scary,” Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi told DEUCE. “He really wanted that match. Both of them did.” The first point, on Rod Laver Arena, illustrated their desire and competitiveness.

“I promised Radek that in three months I would get him into the Top 20”

Bob Bryan served down the middle to Paes, who blocked a backhand return. Bob raced in to retrieve it and volleyed back to Paes, who instinctively struck an attacking lob over Mike Bryan’s head. The American twins switched. Bob ran back to hit a high lob crosscourt, over his shoulder, to Stepanek. The Czech let the ball bounce, as it was too high to strike cleanly, and smashed down the line into the deuce court to Mike, who then blocked a backhand lob to Paes. Most players would have played safe and hit down the middle. After all, it was the first point of a Grand Slam championship final. Not Paes, it was his 27th major final and a life-time of big-match experience. Paes hit a 45-degree angled smash to send Mike close to the advertising hoardings at the side of the court. It was very nearly a winner, but Mike was keen to show he would chase down every ball. After all, it was the first point. With Mike out of the court and Bob patrolling the baseline single-handedly, Paes acted as the executioner to finish the point. With an open court, Paes let the ball drop - to keep the Bryans guessing - then dinked a backhand volley short into the service box. The stroke concluded a 20-second rally. 0/15.

Paes, StepanekEighty-four minutes later, having won 74 of the 138 total points; having hit 41 winners, almost twice as many as the Bryans (22), Paes and Stepanek completed a 7-6(1), 6-2 victory that helped Paes erase memories of runner-up finishes in 1999, 2006 and 2011. For Stepanek, it was a first major title and vindication for all the years of hard work. “We started in Sydney and had some magic in those two weeks at Melbourne. It was amazing it happened in our first Grand Slam tournament,” said Stepanek. “It was a very special feeling for me.” Paes remembers, “It was a very emotional experience having Radek’s father on the phone to me in tears. After so many years of supporting his son, going out there through the hard days of the junior and senior circuits, putting things together. To see the hunger that Radek and his parents have to support him, that is what I play for. I love achieving my goals, winning Grand Slams, and seeing other players who I support achieve theirs.”

Their rivals were not surprised when they were quick to form such a great team. Perhaps, only that they won the Australian Open “straight off the bat”, as Robert Lindstedt told DEUCE in Rome. “They are both great doubles players, so I knew they were going to do well and win Grand Slams and [ATP World Tour] Masters 1000s. It was just a question of when they would click. It was so fast. They found each other really quick. Hats off to them.”

Mike Bryan confessed, “We knew Leander wouldn’t have to teach Radek how to play on a doubles court, so they would come together pretty quickly.” Bob Bryan talked of a matter of margins against the top teams. “Against the good teams, there is almost less pressure. You can kiss it goodbye if you don’t go for your strokes and play aggressively. You can’t play safe, because you get into trouble.”

“It was emotional having Radek’s father on the phone to me in tears”

World No. 1 Daniel Nestor, now aged 39, told DEUCE at the Foro Italico, “Everyone expected them to be a great team. I wasn’t really surprised. Leander has shown he has won with a lot of different people. He is one of the best at quickly forming strong teams. Radek is one of the best singles players and has a lot of skills that transfer well to doubles. I feel you have to be at the top of your game against everyone, but certainly you have to be - from start to finish - against them.” Michael Llodra, who partnered Nenad Zimonjic, confirmed Nestor’s thoughts. “We all know that Leander can play well with anyone,” said the Frenchman in Rome. “Radek, we knew, could be a good doubles player, but until recently he played more singles. It is never easy to play well when you form a new team. Their start was impressive.”

Paes and Stepanek certainly have great chemistry. “I felt as a team we were potent and I imagined we could win the Australian Open,” said Paes. “In the locker room, I don’t think a lot of the guys want to play us, which is a good thing to have earned that respect. That is why we need to keep working hard to maintain that respect and keep getting better.” Match tough, they complement each other well. Stepanek is custom-made for doubles, both his return of serve and first serve are solid. He has a different skill set to Paes, who can catch fire one game per set, and, as Qureshi confirmed, “he can make something out of nothing”. They play with a lot of energy - occasionally getting under opponents’ skins - and get the best out of one another. Paes, who has partnered 89 players during his career, and Stepanek certainly have locker room respect.

Paes, Stepanek“We have had to work hard for our living,” said Stepanek. “We have a great understanding for each other, with feel and touch on the court. Neither of us are the biggest hitters, so we have to think and use our brains on the court on each and every point. Leander is more of a tactics guy in our team, while I provide the solid game, the movement, my returns and serve. He is then able to move fluently and hit terrific angles on his volleys and pick-ups. We match great. I am used to returning crosscourt, but with Leander I have developed my returns down the line. Leander told me to work on that and he told me we’d win big tournaments. I also had to work on my volleys, because I was playing singles in doubles matches, which means I held my own ground and own half. I had to get used to playing with a doubles player and I picked it up the feel quickly.”

Paes believes, “It is just fun to enjoy replicating what I know how I do. It is just about working hard every day, finding the right system to win and the whole team being on the same page. Now the competition is so strong: the doubles teams and singles players competing, different styles. Today, I feel the doubles game takes one doubles guy and one singles player to play amazing. To have a singles player, who has played matches and is really sharp, with a doubles specialist, who knows all the strategy and patterns in doubles, makes for a dynamic team. That is why I like Radek. He is magic. Such a fighter and I love that about him. He hates losing. He likes to keep getting better, to keep improving. That makes me work really, really hard.”

“I don’t see a reason why they can’t dominate on all surfaces”

As Lindstedt explains, “Radek’s athleticism and returns help Leander so much. He is an unbelievable returner, so I think that gives Leander space to move. When Leander returns, he can mix it up a bit more because he knows Radek will make eight out of 10 returns. It is a lethal combination. I don’t see a reason why they can’t dominate on all surfaces.” Said Llodra, “When you have great talent, like Leander, you can play for a long time.”

In today’s doubles game, with no-ads and Match Tie-breaks, any player needs to play at a high intensity. At 30/15 and 30-all, they are huge points. “If your opponents hit two good returns then that’s game over,” said Paes. “You can be a set up and a break, but within 10 minutes you could have lost the match. Then you ask, what just happened? It is fun. It keeps me young.

“For me, it isn’t about being the senior partner and teaching. It’s about learning and that is why I keep playing on. My body feels great at 39. I feel I can go after a seventh Olympics.” Under the guidance of his long-term team: coach Rick Leach, a nine-time major doubles champion; fitness trainer Dave Herman; Sanjay Singh, yoga guru and masseur, and his father, you wouldn’t put it past Paes. “I feel that strong and that happy. But I need to play a sixth [in London at the end of July] and go from there.”

Paes and Stepanek will compete together again at The Championship, Wimbledon, starting on 25 June.

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