Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Martina Hingis and Leander Paes roll into mixed doubles quarters at Aussie Open

It is only the mixed doubles.

It is only a second-round match.

Why exactly then are we on the most iconic court at Melbourne Park -- the Rod Laver Arena?

Martina Hingis first won the singles title here as a 17-year old back in 1997. She won again in 1998. And in 1999. Oh, she's also won the women's doubles title here five times. And the mixed doubles on a couple of occasions as well. Of the 22 Grand Slam titles Hingis has won over her remarkable career, nearly half have come at the Australian Open.

One of those -- the mixed doubles in 2015 -- came in the company of her partner today. Leander Paes and Hingis have been the blue riband mixed doubles team over the last couple of years. They won three of the four slams in 2015 and another one in 2016 at the French Open. Paes doesn't have as many Grand slam trophies in his cabinet as Hingis, but with 18, he isn't that far behind. Between them, the pair have a small matter of 40 majors.

"I am playing with an icon, a legend over here," Paes gushes later in an interview with ESPN. "There's a reason why her pictures are all over the corridor. I love playing with her, not only is she one of my best friends, she is one of the greatest champions of the game of tennis so whenever I get to step on the court with her, its a real treat."

We now know why this second round mixed doubles match is on Rod Laver arena.

Over the years, these two have endeared themselves to Australian crowds. As they walk on at the conclusion of the fourth round encounter between David Goffin and Dominic Thiem, a sparse but robust crowd welcomes them onto court. As bonus, for the second match running, they are pitted against an all-Australian pairing in Casey Dellacqua & Matt Reid. Dellacqua has been in six major women's doubles finals over her career, winning the mixed doubles at the French Open in 2011. Reid is a journeyman. A muscular Aussie with a rumbustious, pummeling game that isn't given to much subtlety.

A lone voice in the crowd attempts to create some partisanship in the arena.

"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie," it goes.

"Oi, Oi, Oi," a couple respond.

You can tell though, their heart isn't in it.

Hingis and Paes are figures of adoration here and if they were to beat the local pairing this afternoon, it wouldn't make anyone in the stadium too sad. Soon enough, the sparkle in their play starts to light up the arena. Hingis' playing style is neat and tidy. On receiving serve, she is firm on her feet, both hands clasping the racquet firmly, body perched over slightly, gaze fixated firmly on the path of the incoming ball. While serving, the ball toss out front with the body positioning itself perfectly beneath to uncoil on impact. Paes reckons that Hingis is serving better than ever, an ace down the tee, then a slider past Reid's outstretched racquet to throw him off and another version with additional spin.

Hingis has a bone to pick with Dellacqua. In the first round of the women's doubles, Hingis and partner Coco Vandeweghe, seeded fifth, are shocked by Dellacqua and fellow Aussie Ashleigh Barty. She wants Paes to help her get revenge and it is clear that they have identified Dellacqua's leftie serve as the weak link in their opponents' arsenal. In the fourth game, Hingis measures the pace on a lob to generate an uncertain riposte and smothers a backhand down the line to make the incision. 3-1. Paes holds to love 4-1. Minutes later, Dellacqua is broken again, and in less than half an hour on court, Paes and Hingis have the set 6-2. Hingis would say later that she was pleased with how they played "strategically smart."

"This morning, in practice, my returns weren't working very well and Martina gave me one tip and that really helped me out on the match court," Paes says when they reflect on the contest. "We love finding different ways to win a match. There's not one way to peel an apple and to play with this little champ, she teaches me so many magical things about the technique of tennis because I am not very sound technically. My athleticism makes up for it. So when she gives me tips, we make it tough for the opponents."

"We learn from each other and also from watching," Hingis adds. "We are both very visual people. You see somebody doing this and that and you are like, 'Oh I'd like to do that too.' We are not stubborn about it, we are trying to learn and that's why we get better throughout the week and the tournament as it goes on. The toughest round is the first one, we get moving and we get into the groove every day."

Doubles combinations often talk about getting into the "groove" as a team. Hingis and Paes produce a demonstration of exactly what that is in the second set. Paes has lightning quick hands and Hingis works at creating angles from the back court for him to poach and kill. Their crossovers are precisely timed, so as Paes hustles across the court and moves forward menacingly, Hingis skips smartly sideways on the baseline to create an impression that they are everywhere at the same time. It flummoxes Dellacqua & Reid.

The Aussies are scrambling to stay afloat as Paes unveils the full range of his control of the racquet in the seventh game. He boomerangs a full throttle forehand, delectably drops a drop volley across net and angles his racquet acutely to change direction on a rapacious Reid forehand. They are cruising now and Paes chuckles as they head to the changeover, naughtily flicking Hingis' ponytail on their way.

4-3 up and the Dellacqua serve is in their sights again. The sun is sharper than it has been over the course of the encounter and Hingis wants to get off court. A neatly constructed move allows Paes an easy kill and at 15-40, it is the only invitation they need for the all important break. In the final game, a mishit from Reid sails over their heads and Paes hollers for it to land out of court. The ball obeys and it generates a communal chuckle in an arena relishing the show being put up for them. Paes pats his heart, beams ear to ear, and goes on to seal the deal.

Leander Paes & Martina Hingis have wowed Rod Laver Arena again.

Two matches and four sets in, they are doing what they do. He is 43. She is 37. Their partnership though, he insists, will be "18 till we die."

"We are very respectful to each other and the game of tennis," says Paes. "It kind of shows, people love coming out to watch us play, they cheer us; they scream, 'We love you Martina, we love you Lee', and that kind of keeps us going."

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