Almost 24 years ago, Leander Paes made it into the history books with an Olympic medal that would go on to be the most important achievement in his extremely-long career. As he celebrates turning 47 on June 17, today, one is bound to look back at the beautiful memories he bestowed upon a whole country.
Leander Paes holds the record for the most number of Davis Cup doubles victories, he is one of the most celebrated achievers of Indian tennis, but it was the bronze medal in Atlanta Olympics 1996 that defines his career.
Paes had ended India's wait of 44 years for an individual Olympic medal and it cannot get any better than that.
As a mere 22-year-old, 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, where he even took a break from the Pro Tour to play in tournament that had the altitude similar to the conditions he was going to be tackle in Stone Mountain in Atlanta.
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 started his Olympics journey with a loss in the first set to Reneberg but then went on to win eight straight sets to set up a semi-final clash with another legend, Andre Agassi.
He lost to Agassi 7-6, 6-3 but the journey got tougher from there.
During the semi-final, Paes had a few tendons in his wrist ruptured and he was in a hard cast for 24 hours. However, it turned out to be the beginning of the fighter that Paes would be for the entirety of his career.
"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.