NEW YORK – When Leander Paes and Martina Hingis, currently the most formidable mixed-doubles pair in the world, took Court 11 at the U.S. Open on Wednesday, they faced two players who were born after both Paes and Hingis began their careers.
The Paes-Hingis pairing has won four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles over the past two years. Their 2016 U.S. Open first-round opponents, Americans Frances Tiafoe and Sachia Vickery, were playing in just their third mixed doubles match together.
Paes and Hingis are 43 and 35, respectively. They turned professional in 1991 and 1994. Tiafoeis 18 and Vickery is 21. Tiafoe was born 11 days before Hingis won the 1998 Australian Open—her fourth career major singles title.
Paes is well aware that he’s the old guy on tour, perhaps mainly because his opponents won’t let him forget. In locker rooms before matches, players tease him, pointing out that an opponent like either of the players he faced on Wednesday could be his son or daughter. He laughs it off.
“I think age is just a number. It’s all about fitness, it’s all about experience. It’s all about how you hit the ball,” Paes says. “The tennis ball doesn’t know the age of the person hitting it.”
Wednesday’s match against Tiafoe and Vickery, which Paes and Hingis won 6-3, 6-2 in less than an hour, wasn’t anything unusual for the defending U.S. Open mixed doubles champions. They’re accustomed to being the elder statesmen of tennis.
Neither player seems perturbed by the frequent age disparities they encounter. With age, of course, comes experience—and Hingis and Paes are both quintessential crafty veterans. Though Hingis later said the match was closer than the score, the result felt inevitable long before she and Paes sealed victory. They often resemble the parents who toy with their son or daughter in one-on-one driveway basketball, and Wednesday was no exception. When they earned a break to make it 5-2 in the second set, Paes celebrated by facing Hingis and, grinning, miming a few boxing jabs—truly the ultimate dad celebration.
Once they’re on the court, Hingis and Paes don’t think about their seniority. They happily point out that what they lack in youth they make up for in experience.
“Sometimes the experience kicks in on the big points or important points,” Hingis says. “It helps to have won a few Grand Slams before.”
Paes first paired with Hingis, his doubles partner with the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis, ahead of the 2015 Australian Open. They promptly won the title in Melbourne, giving Paes his seventh mixed doubles title and Hingis her second. Since the start of 2015, the pair has won four of seven Grand Slam mixed doubles events, a remarkable run of dominance.
Paes, who is from India, is easily introspective. Without much prodding, he’ll talk about Eastern philosophy, for instance. He says things like this: “I think in every human being on this planet there is a champion.” And this: “I may have a few people out there who hate me. I’ve got 1.3 billion who love me. It’s alright. If I don’t have haters, I’m doing something wrong.” He discusses his partnership with Hingis like he might talk about a close family member, using words like “unconditional commitment” and “unconditional loyalty.”
Tiafoe and Vickery were no match for Hingis and Paes, but Paes still lauds the 18-year-old American.
“Frances is going to be one of the best players in the world,” Paes says.
It’s high praise coming from someone who has been in professional tennis for a quarter–century. And with every match Paes and Hingis play, their legend grows: They’ve won a combined 35 Grand Slam titles in doubles and mixed doubles, and five total Grand Slam titles in singles. (OK, those are all from Hingis.) But more impressive is the fact that they’re dominating at a combined age of 78.
“I was winning Grand Slams when these guys were being born—[Tiafoe] is 18 years old! I was 24 when he was born,” Paes says, laughing.
He later added: “It actually is quite flattering that I’ve been able to win Grand Slams for so many years and still stay at the top of the game for so many years.”
Hours after the match, as the first rain of the 2016 U.S. Open began to fall, Paes stopped talking and greeted a few members of Sachia Vickery’s family. They wanted a picture.