It was 1996, the 26th olympics games at Atlanta. Tennis court it was and there stood a 23 year old from India who stole the world’s attention by bringing back the world’s second most populated nation its only 2nd individual medal(Bronze) at the Olympics, after a long break of 44 years from when Jadhav won a bronze at Helsinki, 1952.
That was just the beginning of this lad’s career and today if he looks back, the journey has taken him a long way through a lot of ups and downs, but one thing that never changed in the course is his passion for the game and his patriotism to his motherland. And today we call him a Legend, not just for his game, but for his humanity and love for India. It is the proud son of Mother India, Leander Paes.
One of the best doubles players in the history, he sits second in the most mixed doubles grand slams with 10 titles at the majors just behind Aussie Owen Davidson (11). He has 8 more doubles slams which take his total tally to 18.
The Calcutta born racquet ace has had a wonderful 23 year career partnering legends including Martina Navratilova(2 time grand slam winners/4 finals), Sania Mirza(0/0), Elena Vesnina(0/2), Cara Black(3/5) and finally Martina Hingis(4/4) winning 3 of them in 2015 and one in 2016.The Calcutta based ace has partnered 107 men and 24 women at the doubles and mixed doubles events making him the most partnered player in history.
Even though the numbers clearly show him a favorite to win an Olympic medal at Rio 2016, Paes had a very very tough time in finding himself a good doubles partner and thus could not improve his ranking. The man who was in the single digits till August 2014 could only manage a ranking of 46 when he completed the most elite and so called impossible mixed doubles career slam with Martina Hingis at French Open in 2016. This deprived him of direct qualification to the Rio Olympics.
Being a reciepient of the highest Civilian Award in Sports, the Rajiv Khel Ratna awardee was in a fix and a very pityful situation. His fate of even flying to Rio was in the hands of his former partners Rohan Bopanna, World Rank 10 and Sania Mirza, Ranked 1, who had direct entries to Rio through ranking quota. Paes had personal issues with both of them which put him in a tough fix. Bopanna just added to his voes when he announced that he would choose the young Saketh Myneni over Paes. Then, it was high time when AITA interfered in the matter just to let the players realise “Nation over personal issues” and announced the team with Paes partnering Bopanna. Even though Paes has a better record and form as compared to Bopanna, he was forced out of the mixed doubles event due to a low doubles ranking (sum of doubles ranks of both the mixed players should be less than 30).
Bopanna and Paes, who in all, played 6 games together had a chance to team back and get things going in the Davis Cup tie against South Korea and they took the opportunity both hands and have performed well raising hopes of a medal at Rio. Leander, who has been the lone senior hanging around in the Davis Cup team, leading and partnering youngsters just to represent the country is always a defining presence and so has he been in this tie too backing up Saketh and debutant Ramkumar in the tough and tiring singles rubbers earlier.
The 43 year old, who has proved his form and energy winning the French open mixed doubles title in 2016 with Hingis, is expected to give all he has at his 7th straight Olympics at Rio, creating history by representing India in most Olympic games and the first tennis player to do so. Paes, who has been on a winning streak and determined to break the medal drought for India in tennis, is sure to make a very huge impact on the cricket-bound nation and take the sport of tennis to a whole another level. With all the off court stuff settled, if Paes and Bopanna hold their nerves and give the best they have in them, India can surely bet on a podium finish. Can Leander fulfill his dream of a doubles medal at the 7th go?
All the Best to Legend Leander!