3rd August 1996, Atlanta

A relatively unknown player from Kolkata was battling with his emotions while playing his worst tennis of the past fortnight against Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni. The 23-year old had the weight of 98 crore hopes and a lifetime of hard work on his shoulders. He had been trained by his father, Vece Paes, the Olympic bronze medalist of 1972. The loss of first set compelled the sports journalist to pen down a familiar story for India again, returning empty-handed from the most prominent sporting carnival of the globe. 


16000 Days of disappointment

India attained freedom in 1947 and became a republic in 1950. Sports among all the aspects were expected to grow, and the result showed in the 1952 Olympics when KD Jadhav won a bronze medal in wrestling in 1952, and India produced a world-beater sprinter in Milkha Singh in the 1950s. However, the sporting culture of a nation deprived of necessities soon died, and India went without an individual medal in Olympics for 44 years. Sixteen thousand days without a medal, for reference, it took around 12,000 days to attain independence after the father of the nation landed on the shores of Mumbai in 1915. Therefore, there were hardly any hopes from the 47 members’ contingent that left for Georgia to participate in the 1996 Olympics. 


Leander Adrian Paes

Leander Adrian Paes was one of the upcoming stars in the Indian tennis circuit. He had qualified for the Olympics in doubles along with his partner Mahesh Bhupathi. Leander Paes had many weaknesses in his game amongst which his serving was one of the biggest roadblocks amid an Olympic Medal. His partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi worked because both the players were sterling in putting a curtain on each others’ deficiency. 

Therefore, when Leander Paes, who occupied 137th spot on the ATP rankings, received a wild card into the single event of Atlanta Olympics, there was hardly any excitement amongst the fans and pundits alike. When Paes lost the first set in the first round to Richi Reneberg, all the critics received assertion.  


Is this the same, Leander Paes?    

When Leander Paes stepped onto the court for his first game against Richi Reneberg, there was something which was unlike him. The player had muscles bulging out of his biceps, and his focus reminded of the famous mythic story Arjun aiming at his target’s eye. One aspect of his game, which made turned him to a lion though, was his first and second serve. His serve at a pace of 199.3 Km/hr made him the ninth fastest at the sporting carnival. There were no doubts about his net play but what changed was his attitude towards the game. The player who looked like a pressure cooker in his Davis Cup matches looked calmed even when he lost the first set of his first match. 


And the wait ends

The first set loss against Richi Reneberg was the last set he lost for the next four games. Leander Paes, on the back of some exhilarating performances and killer backhand shots, reached the Semi-finals where the Challenge from Andre Aggasi awaited. Agassi had already bagged three grand slams by 1996 and was the 3rd ranked singles player in the World. What shocked the World was that Paes did manage to give him a run for his money, and the eventual gold medalist lost nine games to the Indian gladiator in a 7-6,6-3 victory. 

A widespread belief amongst the common folk says that men don’t cry, but looking at the visuals of  Paes holding the bronze between his lips did manage to wet many eyes after an epic comeback in a three-set duel against Fernando Meligeni. The scoreboard read 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, and a wait that lasted 44 years ended. 


The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? 

What happened to Leander Paes? What was the next chapter of his life? To read more, wait for the next chapter of our Indian Tennis. 


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