It's 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.
Leander PAES 略歴
When it comes to Indian tennis, few names come close to touching the legend of Leander Paes, who is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished doubles players in the world.
Leander Paes’ achievements on the global stage, headlined by the bronze medal-effort at the 1996 Olympic Games, spurred on future Indian doubles stars like Divij Sharan, Rohan Bopanna and Purav Raja to take up the sport and try to emulate the ‘Indian Express’.
Leander Paes was born on June 17, 1973, in Kolkata to parents who were both accomplished athletes in their own right. His father Vece Paes was part of the men's hockey team who won the bronze medal at the Munich 1972 Olympics, while mother Jennifer Paes led India’s 1980 Asian Basketball Championship team. Sport and the Olympics were in his blood.
He had his first rendezvous with the Games at Barcelona 1992 at the age of 18. He crashed out in the first round of the singles event but strung together some impressive displays alongside partner Ramesh Krishnan, to reach the quarter-finals in the men's doubles.
Building on the experience of his debut Olympics, Leander Paes drew up a plan for Atlanta 1996 and worked diligently for success. With the tennis events scheduled at the Stone Mountain Tennis Center, a hard-court venue some 500m above sea level, Leander Paes took time off from the pro tour to play in specific tournaments played at similar altitudes to condition himself for Atlanta.
A wild card entry to the 1996 Olympics, the initial draw pitted Leander Paes against the then ATP world no. 1, Pete Sampras, in the first round. However, Sampras was forced to withdraw due to injury, leaving the Indian to face another USA player in Richey Reneberg. After losing the first set, he bounced back to take the second before Reneberg was forced to withdraw due to an injury in the third, thus handing Leander Paes his first win at the Olympic stage.
He then beat Nicolas Pereira, Thomas Enqvist and Renzo Furlan, each in straight sets, in the following rounds setting up a semi-final clash against another American tennis legend and the eventual gold medallist in Atlanta - Andre Agassi.
In a gruelling contest, Leander Paes lost 6-7, 3-6 but the then 22-year-old inexperienced Indian's gritty stand made a lasting impression.
Unfortunately, the hard-fought contest left its mark on Leander Paes as well, as he ruptured a few tendons in his wrist heading into the bronze medal match-up against Brazil's Fernando Meligeni.
He lost the first set 3-6, but powered through the pain to take the next two sets 6-2, 6-4 to bring home the historic bronze.
Long after the match, Paes would admit that he recalled little of the encounter, so focused was he in the moment. "I got into what we athletes call ‘the zone’ where you don’t really remember what happened for a 45-minute period" Paes said.
In those lost minutes, he had etched himself in Indian tennis history. Paes had become India's first individual medal-winner since KD Jadhav clinched bronze in wrestling at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
His Olympic moment was the springboard to further success, alongside his illustrious longtime doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi.
After making it to the semi-final stage in the Australian, French and US Opens in 1998, the duo went to a whole new level in 1999, reaching all four Major doubles finals and winning the Wimbledon and French Open titles.
The pair became the first Indians to win a Grand Slam doubles title and shot Leander Paes to world number one in the doubles rankings.
The duo also won the French Open in 2001 and in the following year, the Paes-Bhupathi duo, dubbed ‘Lee-Hesh,’ won the gold medal at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan.
Along the way, Leander Paes was also one of the most formidable opponents the competition could expect in a Davis Cup tie, holding the record for most Davis Cup doubles wins (45).
As the 2000s rolled on, Leander Paes stepped up his mixed doubles participation, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon alongside Martina Navratilova in 2003 and clinching the gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games with compatriot Sania Mirza.
He also took the French and US Opens in 2009 alongside Lukas Dlouhy and the 2010 Australian Open mixed doubles with Cara Black. Leander Paes then partnered with Radek Stepanek and the duo won the US Open in 2013.
It's for these achievements that the Indian government first conferred the Padma Shri and then later the Padma Bhushan, the country’s third-highest civilian honour on the Indian tennis legend.
In 2016, Leander Paes achieved the career Grand Slam when he won the French Open with Martina Hingis.
Paes also participated in the men's doubles competition at Rio 2016, a Games that would be his seventh consecutive appearance at an Olympics - a feat unmatched by any other Indian or indeed any fellow tennis player.
Before the postponement of Tokyo 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak, Paes had expressed his intention to try and qualify for an eighth Olympics before retiring.