Paes Reflects On Newport Singles Title 20 Years On
Leander Paes is well known for his efforts on the doubles court, reaching No. 1 in the ATP Doubles Rankings, claiming 54 tour-level titles including eight Grand Slam triumphs, and becoming the first tennis player to compete at seven Olympic Games.
But it’s easy to forget that Paes was successful on the singles court as well, winning 101 tour-level matches in his career. Twenty years ago this week, the Indian star captured his lone singles title on the ATP World Tour in Newport, Rhode Island at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“It’s one of the Top 5 career highlights that I have right next to my Olympic medal, right next to all the Grand Slams that I've won,” Paes told ATPWorldTour.com. “Winning Newport at the Hall of Fame got my tennis racquet that I won with in the Hall of Fame, got my shoes that I played with that day and the shirt that I played with in the Hall of Fame and when I do have kids and when I do have grandkids I can always bring them back here and show them a bit of the body of work that papa and grandpa has done.”
Paes had always found some of his best singles success at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1996, at the age of 25, he reached his first ATP World Tour semi-final on the Rhode Island grass, beating 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash in the first round. Two weeks later, he won the bronze medal in singles at the Olympics, proving his ability in the discipline.
“That was just humongous back home,” Paes said. “So when I came back here two years later and won the singles event here at the Hall of Fame, I remember it was a pretty big deal back in India.”
Looking back at it, the 1998 Newport field was stacked with talent — a 17-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, 18-year-old James Blake and 22-year-old Rainer Schuettler stick out. The second seed was doubles legend Mark Woodforde, who had been in the Top 20 of the ATP Rankings just two years earlier. Two future No. 1 players in the ATP Doubles Rankings, Mark Knowles and Daniel Nestor, were also competing in singles.
But Paes was a man on a mission. He remembers playing on Court 2 in the first round against David Dilucia, getting pushed deep in a third set against the American. He says he hit a diving backhand drop shot winner to help get him through that match, and the rest was history.
“It was huge [for me],” Paes said. “I think that the Newport win in many ways gave me a sense of belief, gave me a sense of confidence and a sense that my hard work was paying off.”
At the time, Paes was on the fence between pushing on in both singles and doubles, or focusing solely on doubles, which he would do following the 1998 season. He had already owned 10 tour-level doubles trophies alongside Mahesh Bhupathi when he arrived at the International Tennis Hall of Fame that July.
“I was on the threshold of winning doubles Grand Slams,” Paes said. “I had to balance both. And I knew having won my singles medal in the Olympics in 1996, I had a lot of singles in me.”
But Paes has only made two singles quarter-finals on the ATP World Tour since his triumph in Newport, beating then-World No. 2 Pete Sampras just weeks later in New Haven to earn perhaps the biggest singles victory of his career. He’d then make the quarter-finals at the Dell Technologies Hall of Fame Open for the fourth consecutive year in 1999.
“I feel like a lot of my singles results like beating [Pete] Sampras, that got overshadowed a bit. Beating [Roger] Federer too, when he was coming up. Just a lot of the singles gets overshadowed a little bit, including winning the singles here, because of the mammoth doubles career I’ve had,” Paes said. "I can’t believe that the singles win was 20 years ago. That’s a long time. I would’ve never imagined that I’d still be playing tennis.”
But the 45-year-old is still plugging away on the ATP World Tour. He partnered American Jamie Cerretani to beat Nature Valley International champions Luke Bambridge and Jonny O’Mara in the first round in Newport this year before bowing out in the quarter-finals.
And while Paes is happy to reflect on the memories of his triumph 20 years ago, he’s not done pushing for success. His focus is set solely on what’s ahead.
“I’m a happy guy. I stay in the moment. I focus on things that I have in hand. I don’t think I’ve really sat back over the last 29 years and really looked at my career and said ‘I’ve done that’,” Paes said. “I’m always striving to do something new. I’m always trying to push the body and the mind to different boundaries. That’s the reason that I still play now.”