In the zone: Leander Paes’ trance at the Atlanta Olympics

Indian tennis ace Leander Paes recollects what went through his mind en route to the nation’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years.

Ever so often, there comes a time when the stars align in perfect symmetry for athletes to do no wrong. The zone, as it's commonly known, isn't frequent but it is the holy grail for athletes as Leander Paes found out at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“After losing the first set and when I was serving at 1-2 and 30-40 in the second set, something magical happened,” Leander Paes shared in an exclusive chat with the Olympic Channel

“I got into what we athletes call ‘the zone’ where you don’t really remember what happened for that 45-minute period.”

Down a set against Fernando Meligeni in the bronze medal match at Atlanta 1996 and staring down the barrel with a break-point to save in the second set, Leander Paes nevertheless went on to bring home India’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years.

“When I saved the break-point, won that game 2-2, won the second set and served for the match at 5-4 in the third, I got into a zone,” he recalled, still trying to make sense of that magical night at Atlanta, now steeped deep in Indian sports folklore.

“I don’t even remember the points because I was in such a trance. That’s why I talk about a mystical and magical experience.”

“When you play for 1.4 billion people, when you go out to play the Davis Cup or the Olympics, it’s a different feeling altogether,” the Indian tennis player added.

Athletes across multiple disciplines have spoken of being in the zone in the past. It’s believed to happen when an individual enjoys a supreme state of focus that allows them to compete at their peak.

In essence, when Leander Paes and other athletes have been in the zone, they were completely immersed in their craft and absorbed by what they were doing to the point where only they and their objective existed in the nexus of space and time.

Getting to that state isn’t easy or frequent but Leander Paes believes he had discovered it in 1996 Atlanta.

“After losing to Andre Agassi in the semi-finals (where he had ruptured a few tendons in his wrist), I was in a hard cask for 24 hours and the morning of the bronze medal match where I came to play Fernando Meligeni, I realised that it was more mind over matter on that day,” Leander Paes explained.

Leander Paes in the zone: India tennis legend recalls medal moment

Leander Paes in the zone: India tennis legend recalls medal moment

Preparing for Atlanta’s high altitude

For all his mental strength and tenacity, it’s worth pointing out that Leander Paes did prepare for the 1996 Olympic Games meticulously.

“You know, I prepared for Atlanta very specifically. As soon as (1992) Barcelona finished, I spent four years preparing for Atlanta.

“I even took time off the Pro tour to play in tournaments that have high altitude. It resembled the conditions that were there in Stone Mountain, Atlanta. I played in all the hard courts with high altitude in South America,” he added.

But when he eventually did get to the Atlanta Olympics, Leander Paes found out that the draw wasn’t very kind to him.

“When I got to Atlanta, I saw that I had drawn Pete Sampras in the first round and all my contemporaries were tapping me on the back and telling me bad luck, it’s a tough draw. But I somehow felt that there was magic about Atlanta.

Bronze medallist Leander Paes of India, silver medal winner Sergi Bruguera of Spain and gold winner Andre Agassi at the 1996 Atlanta Games
Bronze medallist Leander Paes of India, silver medal winner Sergi Bruguera of Spain and gold winner Andre Agassi at the 1996 Atlanta GamesBronze medallist Leander Paes of India, silver medal winner Sergi Bruguera of Spain and gold winner Andre Agassi at the 1996 Atlanta Games

Magic in the air as preparation meets opportunity

“There was something magical and mystical which is very hard to put into words. But Pete Sampras pulled out, as history will tell, and Richey Reneberg came in for him and I beat him in three sets.”

As it turned out, Leander Paes’ instincts of something magical unfolding at Atlanta proved to be bang on the money. 

He is still the only tennis player from India to win a medal at the Olympics. It’s also a source of pride to the million Indians, who can still recall his finest hour.

“Trying to articulate how I feel gives me goosebumps even in a warm room because the magic of playing for my fellow Indians far supersedes when I play for myself in an individual tournament,” the seven-time Olympian said.

Leander Paes’ Olympic medal is now at the family residence in Kolkata sitting aptly next to his dad Vece Paes’ bronze from the 1972 Games.

With the Tokyo Olympics up next, Leander Paes could extend his record appearance at the Games. Should he make it, it would be his eighth Olympics, more than any other tennis player in history.

And regardless of whether he can find the zone again, you can rest assured that a billion Indians will be backing him to conjure another magical date with destiny in keeping with that transcendental night at Atlanta.

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