Leander Paes represented India at the Olympics last month, but on this day in London, the 39-year-old doubles specialist wore not his native country’s colors but a dark warmup jacket with “Kastles” emblazoned on the back in bold red lettering.
On his way out of the locker room area at the All England club, Paes passed Venus Williams, who acknowledged her Washington Kastles teammate’s wardrobe choice with a sing-song “Go Kastles,” and kept on going.
Since Washington ended its second straight perfect regular season with a victory over Springfield on July 28, Paes and company have been plenty busy playing in the Olympics and U.S. Open, but the veteran said players have still found small ways to support each other during the layoff.
The Kastles — winners of a league-record 30 straight matches — came together to practice at their waterfront stadium this week for the first time in more than a month in preparation for this weekend’s World Team Tennis finals in Charleston, S.C. Led by Williams, the team will meet the New York Sportimes in Saturday’s Eastern Conference championship match with a berth in Sunday’s final on the line.
“We’re actually like a family — one crazy family,” Paes said. “We all come together through the season on the tour and follow each other. For me, the great thing about playing here in Washington— even though I’m so far from home — is this has become my home and these people have become family.”
Last year, Washington locked up the WTT title in late July, becoming the first team in league history to finish a season undefeated. The Kastles got off to another dominant start this summer, but the Olympics threw a wrench into the schedule.
Coach Murphy Jensen said his team should be confident given how well the players continued performing through the unconventional break.
Paes advanced to the men’s doubles final at the U.S. Open with partner Radek Stepanek before falling to Americans Bob and Mike Bryan. Bobby Reynolds, this year's WTT male MVP, and Anastasia Rodionova qualified into their respective singles’ fields at the tournament.
Venus Williams won Olympic gold in doubles with sister Serena, though she had disappointing showings in singles at both the Olympics and U.S. Open. Serena — who won her fourth U.S. Open women’s singles title on Sunday — had been scheduled to play with the Kastles earlier this season but was replaced by Venus in the lineup.
On Saturday, the Kastles will meet a New York squad that relies on a pair of players — John McEnroe and Martina Hingis — with name recognition and lofty career accomplishments who no longer compete regularly on tour. The winner will meet either Sacramento or Orange County in the final.
“Everybody that’s part of this franchise is playing great tennis,” Jensen said. “New York, on the other hand — McEnroe has been in the commentary booth. Martina Hingis has been training, I’m sure, but how much and with who? It’s a whole ’nother speed and a different animal when you’re playing at an elite level.”
After a grueling summer on the circuit, players could use a break right about now. Paes has competed for 15 straight weeks, but he said team tennis has a way of providing an extra boost for tired legs.
Paes enjoyed a rare weekend off in New York after the U.S. Open and dutifully showed up in the District on Tuesday for the team’s first practice in more than a month, greeting Jensen with a hug.
“Not many people believed we would get this far [with the streak], so at this stage in the game, it’s about having fun,” Paes said.
“It’s about doing everything right, keeping the team relaxed and happy.”