One of India’s favourite sons, Leander Paes made history roughly 25 years ago when he won an Olympic medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which would go on to be the most significant achievement of his illustrious career. On the occasion of his 48th birthday on June 17, one can’t help but reflect on the magnificent memories he bequeathed upon a nation.
Leander Paes, who has eight career Grand Slam doubles titles to his name and 10 career Grand Slam mixed doubles championships as well, however is most remembered for his epic feat at the Atlanta Olympics when he became the first Indian since 1952 to win an individual Olympic medal.
A 22-year-old Leander Paes went on a “magical, mystical” journey in the city of Georgia, USA to write one of the most prominent chapters of India’s Olympic history.
“For 1.4 billion people, when you go out there to play the Olympics, it’s a different feeling altogether,” Paes said to the Olympic Channel as he remembered his Atlanta journey.
Paes had prepared for Atlanta with a horse-like vision, taking a vacation from the Pro Tour to play in a tournament with an altitude similar to the circumstances he would face in Stone Mountain.
However, when he reached for the Olympics, he was drawn against Pete Sampras, the legend who was at his peak them.
“All my contemporaries were tapping my back like ‘aah! bad luck, this is a tough draw’. But I somehow felt there was a magic about Atlanta, something that was mystical which is very hard to put into words,” Paes recalled.
And it was magical indeed! Sampras pulled out and local Richey Reneberg came in to take that place.
Paes began his Olympic voyage with a loss to Reneberg in the first round, but went on to win eight straight sets to get to the semi-finals against another superstar, Andre Agassi.
He lost to Agassi 7-6, 6-3 but the journey got tougher from there.
Paes’ wrist tendons burst during the semi-final, and he was forced to wear a hard cast for the next 24 hours. However, it turned out to be the start of Paes’ career-long career as a boxer.
“The morning of the bronze medal match when I came to play Fernando Meligeni, a Brazilian friend of mine, one of my dear friends on tour, I realised that it was more mind over matter that day,” Paes shared.
Paes lost the first set 3-6 and was serving at 1-2; 30-40 in the second, when “something magical happened and I got into what us athletes call ‘the zone’.”
“Where you really don’t remember what happened for that 45-minute period. When I saved the break point, won that game, won that second set and served for the match at 5-4 in the third, I got into a zone where the crowd, the ambience and the pressure situation, all the nuances of what happened, I don’t even remember the point because I was in such a trance,” Paes said.
He won the second and third sets 6-2, 6-4 respectively, to bring home the bronze.
The image of an emotional young Paes standing on the podium with tears in his eyes and pride on his face is still fresh and it’s a memory that is never going to fade away.
Paes also holds the record for the most number of Davis Cup doubles victories, and he is one of the most celebrated tennis players India ever had.