The 1996 Olympics would always be remembered as one of the watershed moments in the history of Indian sports. Exactly 24 years ago, India’s tennis star Leander Paes brought home India’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years at the Atlanta Olympics.
A 22-year-old, Paes then entered the 1996 Games as a wildcard and went on to end a nation’s wait of 44 years for an individual Olympic medal.
In the first match of his Olympic campaign, he lost his opening set to Richey Reneberg of USA but from there, he fought all odds, won eight straight sets to set up his semi-final clash against Andre Agassi. He lost to Agassi 7-6, 6-3 and went up against Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni for the bronze medal match. Against Meligeni, he was one set down but he fought on, rallied from behind to beat the Brazilian 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 and brought home the bronze.
While we all still bask in the glory of the Atlanta Olympics, where Paes had brought home a medal, it definitely paints a misleading picture of Indian tennis as a whole. Apart from a few sparks here and there, Indian tennis hasn’t had much success when it comes to singles. On the contrary, India has been a powerhouse that has consistently churned out world-class doubles pair that brought India all the attraction in the world. But alas, the only missing set of the puzzle has been an Olympic medal that has been long due. Despite coming very close to success, the silverware has eluded India.
Taking nothing away from Leander’s singles performance at the Atlanta Games, we lament at the fact that India could have had a better record at the Olympics with such stronghold in the doubles game. While in singles, the last Indian to break into the top-50 of the ATP rankings was back in 1985 when Ramesh Krishnan achieved the feat. Since then, only Somdev Devvarman (No 62) is one to have come closest. In recent times, only Prajnesh Gunneswaran (75) and Yuki Bhambri (83) have been able to break into the top 100.
In the 90s era all the major Indian tennis players forayed in the doubles categories. Following Leander’s triumph at the Olympics, he teamed up with Lisa Raymond and went on to win Wimbledon in 1999. He also partnered with Martina Navratilova to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon four years later.
Apart from doing well in the mixed doubles category, Leander Paes also found major success in men’s doubles, partnering fellow Indian Mahesh Bhupathi. The all-Indian pair winning a Major together, and starting a season in such a dominant fashion was unprecedented. They became the first pair to reach the finals of all Grand Slams in a year in the Open era, winning French Open and Wimbledon as top seeds. Yet, as incredible as the feat was, in a way it felt almost inevitable because of how consistent the “Indian Express”, as they were dubbed, had been the last couple of years. It was a gradual progression. They won six ATP tour titles in 1997, reached three Grand Slam semi-finals in 1998 and won two Grand Slam titles in 1999, by then Paes and Bhupathi became the poster boys of Indian sport, raking in the audience and the money. They were also ranked no. 1 in men’s doubles at one point.
‘Lee-Hesh’ also won the French Open again a couple of years later, while Mahesh Bhupathi bagged the top prize at the 2002 US Open playing with Belarusian Max Mirnyi.
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi also participated together in the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics. In Athens, they lost in the bronze medal playoff in a marathon match to the Croatian pair 6-7, 6-4, 14-16. And in Beijing, they lost in quarters to eventual gold medallists Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland. The Indian tennis duo also enjoyed a phenomenal 24-match unbeaten run in Davis Cup ties between 1995-2010, with their best effort being a quarter-final appearance in 1996.
The doubles baton of Lee-Hesh was passed on to the current crop through Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna. Sania rose to prominence with some notable performances in the International Tennis Federation’s junior circuit and won Wimbledon as well as the US Open in 2015, partnering with Swiss star Martina Hingis in the women’s doubles category. In her illustrious career Mirza has won six Grand Slam doubles titles. Off the plethora of other achievements that Mirza has against her name, one that stamps her authority as one the greats in Indian tennis is that she also first Indian to climb to the top of the WTA doubles ranking. She also helped the Indian tennis team reach the playoff stage of the Fed Cup recently, the first time they had achieved the feat.
Rohan Bopanna also achieved Grand Slam success in 2017 as a mixed doubles player. The two have also represented India in the Olympics a few times, Rio 2016 provided a golden opportunity for the duo to win a medal at the Games where they lost in the bronze-medal match.
India’s top-ranked singles player at the moment is Sumit Nagal who is world number 127, while Prajnesh is ranked 132 in the world.
In the women’s singles Ankita Rainais placed 122. In an interview with the PTI, Mahesh Bhupathi had said last year, ““Do you really want people to win doubles Grand Slams? We have won like 30 of them. I think it’s time to start talking about singles. I don’t think anybody will get excited if anybody wins anymore doubles Grand Slams.”
India’s success in the double game has been consistent and imperative of success. However, finding a breakthrough in the singles is still a long road to stride and one Olympic medal doesn’t give us the right picture of the system.