Indian tennis legend Leander Paes’s trip to Tokyo 2020 will be his eighth to the Olympics. But his win at Atlanta arguably remains the most memorable
Having last seen a member stand on the Olympic podium at Moscow in 1980, the India contingent had gone four Olympic editions without any medal. Times were desperate, and with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics fast approaching, a nation having made its first steps into liberalisation needed a sporting hero beyond cricket.
A bright-eyed Leander Paes entered the 1996 Games as a wildcard in the men’s singles event. In the first round, he faced local favourite Richey Reneburg who gave the Indian a tough fight. However, with the match tied at one set apiece (6-7, 7-6), Reneburg was forced to retire due to an injury, handing Paes the victory.
The early stroke of luck saw the youngster take his game a notch higher in the following matches. He gradually started to assert himself in the tournament, winning his subsequent matches without much fuss and reaching the semi-final in what was his only his second Olympics appearance.
Up against him was another local hero, a stalwart-to-be, Andre Agassi. If you were too young to gauge it then, the footage from the tussle is worth gold now as it shows Paes leaping and lunging to put up a feisty show. At one point, Paes had five break points against Agassi while serving the fifth game of the second set. But it was then that the bald ‘Punisher’ from Las Vegas took out his A game and yanked the set and match away from Paes’s grip, later crediting the Indian for a spirited show.
Paes would then be lined up against Fernando Meligeni for his bronze medal match. Conceding the opening set to the Brazilian, Paes dug deep into his reserves to produce a fine fightback and pocket the bronze with the score reading 3–6, 6–2, 6–4.
India’s only triumph in an individual sport, prior to Paes’ bronze, had come in the 1952 Olympics, when bantamweight category wrestler Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won the bronze medal in Helsinki.
Paes returned home a hero. He was awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour in India, besides many other accolades. He went on to have a very successful career in professional tennis, winning Grand Slams in doubles and mixed doubles over the years.
In a way, Paes only took his family’s sporting legacy ahead - his father was part of the Indian hockey team at the 1972 Olympics while his mother played basketball for India. Paes played a big role in shaping not just the tennis landscape in the country, but also inspiring a generation to dream big.
Since that historic day in Atlanta, India has managed to win at least one medal in all subsequent Olympics. Now, as brave new contingent readies itself for Tokyo 2020 and eyes to have their best Olympics ever, Paes’ farewell could instill that extra ounce of gusto among the athletes.
The folklore comes to an end at the 2020 Tokyo Games, and it’s safe to assume Paes will continue to shape tennis champions for India’s future.