Synonymous with the success stories in Indian tennis of the past three decades, the name of Leander Paes has been a constant. An 18-time Grand Slam champion having collected 8 of his majestic wins playing men's doubles and another 10 contesting in mixed doubles, Paes is a legend of the sport.
Hailing from Calcutta, the 47-year-old also holds the record of being the only Indian male tennis player to have represented the nation for a mind-boggling 7 times on the trot. Turning pro in 1991, it is still a wonder how Leander Paes has managed to sustain a career spanning this long while also maintaining and adding to the records in his Book of Successes.
In 2019, the former World No. 1 in men's doubles, Leander Paes had announced that 2020 would be his last year on the tour. Announcing the 'One Last Roar' campaign, Paes had decided to put a stop to his extremely long and fruitful career. The only remaining goal Leander had was to play in a record eighth Olympics by qualifying for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic encroaching on the world, all such desires had to take a back seat. The pandemic played the perfect spoilsport and brought life to a standstill in 2020 where more than half the year was spent in a locked down state. Naturally, the IOC decided to postpone the Tokyo Olympic Games to 2021 and accordingly Leander, as well, held up his plans to retire from the circuit a bit more.
Remembering the legacy of Leander Paes at the Olympics
Boosting Indian tennis to the pages of Olympic glory, it was Leander Paes who fetched the first and only medal honours for India in Olympic tennis. The talented Calcutta-born player was an unassuming wild card entry into the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Nobody, not even Indian fans, could have foreseen the outcome of Leander Paes at the Games.
Entering as an underdog, it was the second Olympic outing for Paes and he began to show marks of brilliance from the get-go. Hailed as the Brad of Bombay by none other than 8-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi, who Paes played against in the semi-finals, Leander was budding with potential in Atlanta.
Cruising through the first few rounds, Leander entered the semis with high hopes. While one might expect Agassi to clearly dominate the encounter, it was hardly the case as Paes, who had ruptured a few tendons in his wrist, gave Agassi a difficult time. However, Agassi did go on to prevail and eventually won the tight match 6-7, 3-6. Booking himself a place to fight it out for a bronze, Paes had to clash against Brazil's Fernando Meligeni.
It wasn't the smoothest of outings either as Paes, playing with injury, ended up losing the first set in no time.
"After losing the first set and when I was serving at 1-2 and 30-40 in the second set, something magical happened," Leander Paes told the Olympic Channel.
However, the talented Indian soon shifted things to a higher gear and the momentum of the match began to shift from the Brazilian. Breaking effectively at crucial points, Paes conjured a magical display of tennis that propelled India to win an individual Olympic medal for the first time in 44 years.
"I got into what we athletes call 'the zone' where you don't really remember what happened for that 45-minute period," Paes had revelead in the interview.
By winning the bronze medal on his second outing at the Olympics, Leander Paes scripted history for Indian tennis. After that, he shifted from singles to play more doubles and at the 2004 Athens Games, the pairing of Leander Paes - Mahesh Bhupathi came close to winning yet another medal at the Olympics. However, the Indian pair succumbed to a defeat at the hands of the Croatian duo of Mario Ančić - Ivan Ljubicic.
Will Leander Paes hang up his racquet then?
However, it seems most unlikely that Leander Paes can qualify for the Tokyo Olympics now. His dream of playing for a record eighth time might have to remain unfulfilled given his current ranking of World No. 177.
In a career strewn with ample controversies regarding who will partner with Paes with almost all of the fellow Indian players - Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna, Sania Mirza, having had their fair share of complaints, the chance of Paes making it to Tokyo might as well be ruled out.
Paes, who had seemed positive about participating in the Games even in March of this year, might have to sit this out owing to his ranking. In fact, it seems unlikely that India will be represented in the men's doubles this year at all because even India's top-ranked doubles pair of Rohan Bopanna - Divij Sharan has a low combined ranking of No. 113.
As difficult as the truth might be but Leander Paes might have to end his One Last Roar with a whimper given the situation. However, Paes does not need to worry about his legacy as he will go down the pages of Indian tennis history as one of the legends of the sport and in the history of global tennis, as one of the most formidable players in doubles.