As I sit down to write this piece, relieved that Leander Paes and Martina Hingis were able to see off a mighty fightback from their American rivals Sam Querrey and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the US Open mixed doubles final, I find myself in a quandary. While Leander - the "young old man" - has made the country proud for the umpteenth time, we could be in for a veritable "double dhamaka" when Hingis partners another Indian - our very own Sania Mirza - this time, for a shot at the US Open women's doubles crown. And now, I find myself torn between these three fantastic athletes, all of whom have been real inspiration for us. Which of these individuals am I the most happy for? This question has put me in a fix, but I realise at the end of the day that I simply can't pick one over the other.
All three of them - Leander, Sania and Hingis - have had to fight considerable odds on their way to success; odds, in the face of which lesser mortals would perhaps have crumbled. So while even a deadly disease could not break Leander's spirit, Sania's Indianness was questioned simply because she married a man from a country that we Indians love to hate: Pakistan. Things came to such a pass that BJP leader K Laxman called Sania the "daughter-in-law" of Pakistan and slammed the Telangana government's decision to appoint her as the brand ambassador of the state last year. Everything, from her attitude to attire, was questioned and she has had a fatwa issued against her. She has also been accused to disrespecting the national flag.
|Leander and Hingis after winning the 2015 US Open mixed doubles final.
Hingis's career, on the other hand, looked set for an early demise, when a series of injuries forced her to withdraw from professional tennis at the tender age of 22. This would have been heartbreak for the Swiss who had had a blistering start to her career, having won five Grand Slam singles titles and nine Grand Slam doubles titles from 1996-2002. In this process, she became the youngest Grand Slam champion of the 20th century and the youngest world number one.
Not one to quit, she made a return to the WTA Tour in 2006, but was never quite the player that she once was.
Hingis suffered another major crisis in her career when she faced doping allegations in 2007 and was banned for two years. A crestfallen Hingis withdrew from the sport for the second time. However, she came out of retirement again in 2013 and reached the final of the US Open doubles the following year.
The "Swiss Miss" has had a dream run this year, having won mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open, and the doubles title at the Wimbledon, and will turn up for the final of the US Open women's doubles on Sunday, looking to add another jewel to her dazzling crown.
|Hingis and Sania after winning the women's doubles final at Wimbledon 2015.
Interestingly, Hingis's success story this year has been achieved with the active assistance of two Indians - Leander in mixed doubles and Sania in doubles. Hingis has always had a special relation with India. After she came out of her retirement in 2006, Mahesh Bhupathi had partnered her to clinch the Australian Open crown that year. That title had to be special for Hingis, considering that coming out of a long hiatus and performing on the biggest stage straightaway is no child's play, no matter how good an athlete is. It was a landmark in Hingis's career, being her first Grand Slam mixed doubles title and it gave her belief that she could still compete at the highest level.
In 2006, she also won the Sunfeast Open in Kolkata beating Olga Poutchkova of Russia. Though the tournament was pretty obscure, it helped Hingis get back in the groove. This was yet another India connection with a positive impact on Hingis's career.
However, from an Indian perspective, we simply can't thank the "Swiss Miss" enough. Indian tennis, this year, has blossomed handsomely at the tournaments that matter - the Grand Slams - and Hingis has been the common factor. She has been India's lucky mascot of sorts. So after she and Leander put up a sublime show at the Louis Armstrong stadium in New York on Friday, hope has turned into conviction that she would be able to do the same with Sania as her partner, and follow up their Wimbledon title in July with a US Open crown on Sunday.
With Australian Open and Wimbledon titles already in the kitty, the US Open victory on Friday has now made Leander-Hingis the first mixed doubles team in the Open era since 1969 to win three Grand Slams in a single year.
For Leander, a legend himself, and one of the great examples of longevity in the history of the sport, the name "Martina" carries a special meaning. It was with the iconic Martina Navratilova that he won two Grand Slams (Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2003) and finished second at two more (Australian Open, 2004 and French Open, 2005). However, what counts for much more is the support that Navratilova gave Leander when a brain abscess threatened to put an end to his career. Navratilova, reportedly had promised to wait for Leander to recover before playing competitive mixed doubles.
"She (Navratilova) had some wonderful advice for me on looking at the bigger picture in life," Leander said at that time.
While Leander shares a very strong bond with Navratilova, Hingis's role in Leander's career isn't small by any means. "Martina is a legend on and off the court. She's my best friend. She's just fantastic," Leander was quoted as saying.
Hingis has had a big role in Sania's career growth too and this year, the duo has won a number of tournaments, apart from the Wimbledon.
"With Hingis it is a special bonding. Her hunger for success is amazing despite winning so many titles. This is what I want to learn from her,” Sania was quoted as saying, in a report in The Hindu, on July 15, 2015.
In the process, Hingis has endeared herself to Indian tennis fans, who have started to see her as one of their own.
So let's have our fingers crossed for a "two-in-two" at this year's US Open. With Martina Hingis by our side do we at all need to worry?