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Leander Paes turns 51: A stellar, bronze-coated career

Paes’ exploits at Atlanta in 1996, ended India’s 44-year-old individual medal-drought.

Leander Paes (Image Source: tennisworldusa)

His exploits on the ATP tour notwithstanding, Leander Paes will forever be remembered as a medal winning Olympian. (Photo credit: tennisworldusa)


The Bridge Desk

Updated: 17 Jun 2024 12:54 PM GMT

As the news of Sumit Nagal’s qualification for Paris 2024 emerged, the tennis fraternity across India is bound to have heaved a sigh of relief. For the second consecutive Olympics, India will now feature in a tennis singles event.

At Tokyo 2020, Nagal had made it through to the second round, a feat so significant that it had been twenty-five years in the making.

And who had gotten deep in the tennis draw at the Olympics all those years ago?

A certain Leander Paes, who incidentally turns 51 today.

A prodigious talent

Born in Kolkata on 17 June, 1973, Leander was surrounded by sportspersons. His father, Vece Paes, played hockey, and mother Jennifer Paes, played competitive basketball. Such was their proficiency that Vece Paes represented India in 1972 Munich Olympics and won bronze. Meanwhile, Jennifer led the Indian basketball team in the Asian Basketball Championship, 1980.

Sports, therefore, came naturally to the young Leander.

At 12-years of age, Paes’ father enrolled him at the Britannia Amitraj Academy in what was then Madras. It was here that youngster’s prodigious talent emerged.

And soon enough, he was on the global junior circuit, competing and winning. Paes won two Junior Grand Slam titles - a Junior US Open and a Junior Wimbledon title - enroute to becoming the world junior number one.

Turning professional was the obvious next step and in 1991, he made the transition.

Steady progress

Paes rose steadily through the ranks on the professional circuit and in due course, was inducted into the Indian Davis Cup team, playing alongside Zeeshan Ali for India in 1990.

In 1992, he got his first taste of the Olympics at Barcelona when he played doubles with Ramesh Krishnan as the partner. Soon, he found a soft-spot for doubles.

In 1993, he reached the US Open doubles semi-final partnering Canadian Sebastian Lareau. And in 1995, he made the Australian Open quarter-finals with Kevin Ullyett.

With his game well suited for doubles, a partnership was made with Mahesh Bhupathi, one that blossomed over the years.

In 1998, the ‘Indian Express’ reached the semi-finals of three Grand-Slam events including, the Australian Open, the US Open and the French Open. And in the Davis Cup, with 24 wins, Paes and Bhuapathi went on to post the record of longest winning streaks.

Despite all his doubles success, every time the Olympics are mentioned, Paes’ names pops up automatically.

Heroics in Atlanta

On August 3, 1996 Paes ended India’s individual Olympic medal quest after 44 years, when he seemingly came out of nowhere to bag a bronze in the singles event.

But not very many remember that at the time of the Atlanta Olympics, Paes was ranked No.126 and needed a wildcard entry to compete. Peter Sampras, the then No.1, waited for him in the first round.

But Paes was in for a pleasant surprise.

“There was something magical and mystical which is very hard to put into words. But Pete Sampras pulled out, as history will tell and Richey Reneberg came in for him and I beat him in three sets,” Paes was quoted as having said to the media.

The Indian maestro then went on to get the better of Nicolas Pereira from Venezuela, Thomas Enqvist and Renzo Furlan to finally set up a semi-final clash with the great Andre Agassi in the semi-final.

Despite playing his heart out, Paes succumbed to a 7-6, 6-3 loss. But the Indian had another shot at the podium and Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni stood between him and a bronze medal.

Going into the match, Paes nursed a sore wrist and had it wrapped for 24 hours. But the pain wasn’t going to stand in his way. And despite losing the first set, Paes would fight back and get the better of Meligeni in three sets, 3-6, 6-2, & 6-4 to bag bronze.

In doing so, Paes became the only Indian and the first Asian to clinch a medal in the tennis singles category at Olympics.

Doubles delight and legacy

His heroics at Atlanta aside, Paes went on to have a successful career in doubles, winning 18 Grand-slam titles across both doubles and mixed doubles.

Partnering the great Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis, he would taste grand slam success in the mixed doubles category as well.

And while Paes’ name will be synonymous with doubles tennis, he will forever be the legend that brought laurels for India on the Olympics stage.

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