Behind an Olympic Medal: Tennis - Leander Paes' bronze in Atlanta 1996
The watershed moment of Indian tennis arrived at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when Leander Paes bagged bronze and became the first individual Olympic medalist after a span of 44 years.
The watershed moment of Indian tennis arrived at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when Leander Paes became the first individual Olympic medalist after a long span of 44 years. Winning the bronze medal in the men's singles category, Leander Paes indelibly inscribed India's name on the pages of Olympic history. After wrestler K.D Jadhav's 1952 Helsinki Olympics bronze win, it was Paes in 1996 who undid the jinx and bagged a medal in an individual discipline, defeating Brazil's Fernando Meligeni.
Even though India has produced a fine crop of successful tennis players, especially in the doubles and mixed doubles varieties, India's lone moment of Olympic glory in tennis has occurred in 1996 only. Fraught with controversies and ego battles, India's tennis chapter has been the victim of much off-court drama. Leander Paes is known to share troubled waters with Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza, which has been a cause of concern for the Indian tennis fraternity.
As I gear up for Rio, remembering one of the proudest moments of my career from 20 years ago today..#Olympics #IND 🏅 pic.twitter.com/d1xcdJQVd1— Leander Paes OLY (@Leander) August 3, 2016
Therefore despite the exploits of the Indian tennis stars at the various Grand Slam tournaments, the Olympic Games have somehow been elusive for them. In fact, in 1996, nobody could have predicted that Paes would win as he entered the Games as an unassuming wildcard entry. However, the 'Brad of Bombay' as Agassi hails him in his autobiography ended up creating history with his ceremonious 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Meligeni which led to a classic semi-final match-up against Agassi, the eventual gold medallist. Other than Paes, other Indian tennis stars have also ventured close to grabbing a medal at the Olympics as well.
Notably, the Paes-Bhupathi pair came dangerously close to winning a medal at the 2004 Athens Games where they went down fighting to the Croatian duo of Mario Ancic-Ivan Ljubicic in the bronze medal clash. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Mirza-Bopanna combine had cruised into the semi-finals and was a set away from clinching silver before the Venus Williams-Rajeev Ram pair crushed their hopes.
The legacy of Leander Paes
Just shy of turning 48 next week [17th June], the Calcutta-born Leander Paes is eager to make it to his eighth consecutive Olympics next month at Tokyo. Paes, also boasts the record for being the only Indian tennis player to have represented the nation for a mind-boggling 7 times so far at the quadrennial Games.
While the possibility of Leander Paes making it to an eighth straight Olympics seems bleak, the 47-year-old is staying positive about it. Paes, who had decided to draw his three-decade-long career to a close with One Last Roar in 2020, decided to postpone hanging up his racquet after the Tokyo Olympics got rescheduled to 2021.
Voicing his opinion during the Tennis Premier League auction in March, Paes said, "I have always been a patriot and believe that the only best players should represent the country," the 18-time Grand Slam champion said while referring to the Tokyo Olympics.
However, Paes has been largely inactive on the tour and his doubles ranking has dropped to No. 162, making his dream of appearing at an eighth consecutive Olympics a near-impossible thing.
Can India bag a second Olympic medal at Tokyo?
Recently, Sania Mirza confirmed her participation in the Tokyo Olympics and is all set to partner with India's top-ranked singles player, Ankita Raina. The former women's doubles World No. 1, the 34-year-old Mirza, will be playing her fourth straight Olympics. With 6 Grand Slam titles to her name, India's most successful female tennis player glaringly lacks the Olympic medal from her illustrious career. It remains to be seen if the 2016 Rio Olympics mixed doubles semi-finalist is able to etch this record correctly in Tokyo.
Other than the Mirza-Raina duo, the focus will also be on Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan to make it to Tokyo as well. Bopanna, who is the top-ranked men's doubles tennis player in the country has the best chances to make it to Tokyo and Sharan, should be his obvious choice.
Lastly, the chances of Bopanna and Mirza teaming up again os very much on the radar and it remains to be seen if this incredibly successful pair can avenge their 2016 loss and win in Tokyo.