- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The son of two Olympic athletes, Leander Paes always knew he would follow in his parents’ footsteps. Vece Paes won the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics in Munich as a member of India’s field hockey team, while Jennifer Paes played for the Indian basketball team.

Leander never planned for tennis to be his path to the Games.

“I actually captained the Indian under-15 soccer team,” he said. “I had to make a choice when I was 12 because I really wanted to play in the Olympics. Back home, India wasn’t that good at soccer.I had to pick a sport. … I played [tennis], but I wasn’t serious about it. My dad said one day, ‘If not soccer, what else?’ I said tennis. He goes, ‘What? You don’t even play tennis properly.’ I said, ‘Give me a year. I’ll figure it out.’ “

Paes figured it out better than almost anyone in the world, achieving his dream in 1996 when he won a bronze medal in singles at the Olympics in Atlanta. Among his other accolades are 12 Grand Slam titles, six each in doubles and mixed doubles. He and Mahesh Bhupathi are ranked fourth in the world in men’s doubles.

Like Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters and other top names in his sport, Paes makes elite tennis accessible to American fans by taking part in World Team Tennis. In his third season with the Washington Kastles, Paes has helped make all his teammates better, drawing comparisons to one of the game’s all-time greats from coach Murphy Jensen.

“The greatest doubles team in the history of the game … was [John] McEnroe and anyone,” Jensen said. “Leander Paes is that kind of guy. Leander Paes and anyone — he will find a way to win with our security guard. He’s that kind of guy.”

Paes has traveled the world to play in tournaments, but he has formed a particular connection with the community in D.C. He relishes the opportunity to play before sellout crowds in the Kastles’ stadium on the wharf as the sun sets on the water, government helicopters pass overhead and the loudspeaker blasts “Jai Ho” each time he makes an important play.

Kastles fans probably have memorized the lyrics to the song, as Paes’ play has propelled the team to the top of the league’s standings in men’s and mixed doubles.

“It’s a privilege for me to be able to be on the court with him, and I’ve learned so much just in the short time that we’ve played together,” said Bobby Reynolds, who has partnered with Paes in every men’s doubles match this season. “He makes it easy. I just hit a couple shots and then he takes over at the net. It’s been working this year, and hopefully it continues.”

In mixed doubles, Paes has played with Rennae Stubbs and both Williams sisters at various points this season, and he is tied for second in the league with an individual winning percentage of .579 through 12 matches.

“All great champions, all three of them. It’s kind of fun to get to mix it up with different partners,” Paes said. “For example, when I play with Venus I get to play my regular side, which is the deuce court. Venus has a great double-handed backhand cross-court. That’s a natural shot for her, whereas when I play with Serena, she generally plays the deuce court, so I have to switch over to the ad court. Rennae is a serve-and-volley player, so she likes to come in and play chip-and-charge kind of tennis.”

Stubbs, a former world No. 1 in doubles and 12-year veteran of WTT, first played with Paes after a phone call from team owner Mark Ein convinced him to join the Kastles in 2009.

“It’s hard to find two people that are more experienced than us on the doubles court. We find a way to win,” Stubbs said. “We know when the pressure is on that we’re going to come through. We get along really well, and we both play pretty similarly on the court. I think we understand each other’s games pretty well.”

Paes has created a sphere of influence that extends far beyond his sport, as the founder of an orphanage, a Bollywood actor and the designer of his own clothing line. The orphanage, Future Hope in Calcutta, got its start when Paes donated his first tennis prize money, approximately $1,000, to Mother Teresa at the age of 9. He gives 15 percent of his yearly income to the organization.

On and off the court, he always has valued the chance to make a difference to his community.

“I find that the greatest joy I get is to bring happiness to people, especially young children,” Paes said. “I guess that’s what my life is about. It’s about community. It’s about people.”

A practicing Buddhist, Paes always lives in the moment. He does not think about the fact that after the Kastles’ season ends he will have just three days off before undertaking a busy tournament schedule that includes the U.S. Open and the Davis Cup.

Instead, he will prepare for one last home match Thursday within sight of the Capitol, his favorite monument in Washington. During the playoffs in Charleston, S.C., this weekend, he will look for his second MVP trophy and league championship in three years, having won both in 2009.

Apparently he didn’t need a year to figure out the WTT.

“Having MVP and winning the championship for Washington in the first year was just icing on the cake,” Paes said. “That is something that will always stand out for me. Sure, I’m always here every year to try to win championships. But my first-year experience is pretty tough to beat, isn’t it?”