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Leander Paes: Going strong 20 years after Atlanta bronze

olympics 2016 Updated: Aug 03, 2016 23:22 IST
Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

Leander Paes won the Olympic bronze 20 years ago at Atlanta. (Getty Images)

“After an hour, you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I’m prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6 6-3.” Pouring his heart out 13 years after the semifinal struggle in the Atlanta Games before clinching gold, Andre Agassi’s best-selling autobiography ‘Open’ was for the world to read.

A then relatively unknown 23-year-old Indian coming so close to thwarting the world No 8 American was something out of a fairy tale. “A flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the Tour’s quickest hands”, Agassi goes on. It’s been two decades since the Atlanta Games, but the words can still describe the phenomenon that is Leander Paes.

Wednesday marked 20 years since his date with Olympic glory, the bronze medal in Atlanta. “Has it been that long?” Paes jokes but turns serious: “I didn’t realise the magnitude of the achievement after I won match point. It took some time for the moment to sink in.”

Fond memories

He tweeted with pictures: “As I gear up for Rio, remembering one of the proudest moments of my career from 20 years ago today...” Fans haven’t stopped responding with wishes pouring in. For many, Paes is a humble star they’ve grown up with, his achievements impacting their lives.

Paes turned 43 in June. At an age when his contemporaries have turned to off-court business ventures, TV commentary or coaching, the Indian is gaining match practice at World Team Tennis representing Washington Kastles. When he steps on the hardcourts at Rio de Janeiro later this week, Paes will be appearing in his seventh Olympics, breaking two records simultaneously – the first by an Indian and the first by a tennis player. However, it isn’t enough.

Playing for glory

“If I had lost 6-2, 6-2 to Agassi, it would have been fine, but to have come so close...” he had said after the crushing semifinal loss. Unlike on the Tour, he was still in the competition, with a chance to win bronze.

As a 23-year-old it was an enormous burden. No Indian since 1952 had won an individual Olympic medal, since KD Jadhav’s wrestling bronze at Helsinki. “The 44 (years) was playing at the back of my mind,” Paes admits.

Twenty years to the day, he had taken on Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni in the playoff. Losing the first set, Paes’ chances at glory seemed to be receding at Stone Mountain Tennis Center.

Then rain intervened. He admitted later that at that moment he was simply ‘playing emotional tennis and not thinking’. But if you’re Leander Paes, you come up with magic in crucial junctures. He’s proved it time and again in the past 26 years on the Tour and umpteen Davis Cup ties. “Playing for the tri-colour is emotional. I give everything I have,” the voice quivers.

And that’s exactly what happened in Atlanta. Despite the rain break, Paes found a way to beat Meligeni 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 and create history. “I had a sore tendon in the playing hand,” he recalls. “It took away all other distractions. I focused on what I had to get done.”

Breaking barriers

Looking back at the photographs of a beaming Paes with the bronze around his neck posing with Agassi and Sergi Bruguera are what dreams are made of. It was added to the Paes family trophy cabinet alongside father Vece’s hockey bronze from the 1972 Games.

“The level of madness hit me when I landed in India with the medal,” Paes laughs. He was the new hero and everyone wanted a piece of him. “At the same time, the Olympic medal was an affirmation of self-belief. I’ve always maintained that we Indians could take on the best of the world and beat them. I hope that my contribution encouraged other youngsters to take on the world too.”

His bronze was the breakthrough India had waited for years. Since 1996, India has won at least one medal in every edition of the Games. Personally, his achievements are a delight for sports historians, and they include 18 Major trophies, career Slams in men’s and mixed doubles, and 55 overall titles.

He goes to Rio with one aim — adding a second Olympic medal to his resume, but this time in doubles. Maybe then, he would feel complete.