India was without an Olympic medal for 16 years and more so sans another individual medal for 44. It was time for the Atlanta Games in 1996 and the contingent finally came home with a bronze from a wildcard participant. Yes, he was Leander Paes who later went on to become the greatest tennis superstar of our country.
It was then the second Olympics for the Kolkatan who is now on course for a record seventh one in a week’s time at Rio de Janeiro. As was the case with Paes, he was a regular doubles player, but when his country needed him, he had exhibited his best in the singles. And that Atlanta 1996 was no different, if not, more significant.
Paes, ranked 127 in the world at that time, was not into the direct scheme of things for singles draw at the Olympics. More importantly medal hopes rested primarily on his doubles team up with Mahesh Bhupathi – the team together earning a qualification slot – although eventually they lost their second match to the most decorated and top-seeded Australian team of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, but not before the Indian pair led them by a set. Paes’ singles venture was more about just winning a match or two, leave alone winning a place in the podium.
However Paes, whose father Vece was part of the bronze-winning Indian side at Munich, started with a bang – packing off world no. 20 Richey Reneberg after the American retired early in the deciding set after the first two tight sets went either way after coming down to tie-breaks. In the next game, Pace got the better of Venezuela’s Nicolas Pereira – conceding just five games. The juggernaut kept on rolling with the Indian stunning the world no. 10 and the third seed Thomas Enqvist of Sweden in two close sets.
In the last 8, Paes’ rival was world no. 26 Renzo Furlan of Italy. Into the match, the Italian could win just a game in the first set, before Leander closed the second in 7-5. And then the 23-year old faced one of the biggest challenges in his career so far – a semi-final clash with the home favourite Andre Agassi. The American was the top seed at the event.
Leander Paes however was determined and took the first set to the tie-breaker. The Indian got two chances to grab the set – but the seasoned American closed the set in the 12th point of the tie-breaker. In the next set, Paes could only win three games before Agassi booked his ticket to the final and eventually went all the way to win gold. Leander Paes locked horn with the other losing semi-finalist Fernando Meligeni of Brazil for the bronze medal. With the game marred by rain and an injured right wrist, an unimpressive Paes ultimately got the better of his 93-ranked rival in three sets – with the scoreboard reading 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win to the bronze-medalist Paes.
Though a lot was expected from Paes in the doubles at the subsequent Games, the Indian at large had failed to deliver. His best chance in winning another medal came at Athens eight years hence. Partnering Mahesh Bhupathi, the fifth-seeded team defeated the American and the Swiss teams – consisting of Andy Roddick and Roger Federer respectively – in the early rounds. In the quarters, they defeated the fourth-seeded Zimbabwean side of Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett. All the three victories came in straight sets and they were the only seeded team in the semis. However, they fell to the German team of Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schüttler in a lackluster performance where they could win just five games. In the bronze medal match against the Croatian duo of Mario Ančić and Ivan Ljubičić, Lee-Hesh came from a set behind to only suffer a heart-breaking loss in a marathon that lasted 30 games into the final set in a match that lasted almost four hours.
Another big setback was the constant growing of differences between these two leading tennis superstars that eventually they were not on talking terms to each other. In Beijing 2008, they reconciled briefly to pair up again but ended their campaign with a quarter-final loss to the eventual gold medalist team from Switzerland having Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka in their ranks. Their equation soured so badly that the then doubles world no. 6 Paes had to partner rookie Vishnu Vardhan at the London Olympics as Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna had qualified as a team and neither of them was interested in partnering the man who has recently become only the fourth player in the Open era to win career Grand Slam in both the doubles discipline.
Nevertheless, the Atlanta bronze will serve as one of the greatest achievements in the highly successful career of Leander Paes and more importantly a watershed moment in the context of Indian Olympics history. At the podium, the tears of joy in his eyes were more than an indication of his pride in playing for the country which he has been doing almost for quarter of a century.