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Leander Paes recalls journey to 1996 Atlanta Olympics bronze medal

Leander Paes would have been days away from competing in his eight Olympics in a pandemic-less world. But with COVID-19 pushing the start of the Tokyo Olympics by a year, Paes is still unsure if his 47-year-old body — after three decades of toil on the professional circuit — has the wherewithal to withstand further rigours of competitive tennis a year from now.

The lockdown, though, has given him a much-needed break and the chance to recuperate. Paes became independent India’s second individual Olympic medallist — after wrestler Khashaba Jadhav in 1952 — when he won the bronze in singles at the Atlanta Olympics on August 3, 1996. On a rainy day in Mumbai, Paes travelled back in time with Sportstar as his iconic win — which has inspired India’s Olympic resurgence — enters its 25th year.

Olympic baby, medal dreams!

Literally being an Olympic baby — I was conceived in Munich in 1972 when the Games were interrupted for four days — every time I think about the Olympics, it takes me back to my childhood days. I always dreamed of being an Olympic champion someday and as a child I would polish my father’s Olympic bronze medal every Sunday.

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I would ask him about the goddess Athena, who was engraved on his medal, and what she stood for. I would also question him about the Olympic movement and what it meant to be an Olympic champion for India.

Leander Paes shakes hands with Andre Agassi after their semifnal match at the 1996 Olympics.   –  The Hindu Photo Library

 

I would eye the playing jerseys of my mom and dad. Mom’s (Jennifer, the captain of India’s basketball team) jersey was No. 5, while dad’s (Vece, a member of the bronze medal-winning Indian field hockey team at the 1972 Munich Olympics) was No. 10.

That has been my whole journey. Yes, in the way I have won 18 Grand Slams, or have got the Davis Cup world record for India – but the one thing that I always cherish is the fact that I played for my country in seven Olympics in a row! I always wanted to emulate my father and win an Olympic medal.

Heartbreak in Barcelona

I had to earn my spot for my first Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, and as I came back from Osaka after qualifying for the singles, my father congratulated me and said, “This is going to be your first Olympics. Enjoy and celebrate the moment…” I asked him how to go about it, since I desired to win a medal.

As he was aware of my work ethics, he also understood that it was important for me to get the experience and the handle the pressure of playing in the Olympics.

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He advised me to attend the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony and also to interact with other athletes, to learn from each of their experiences. He also said, “You are going to take part in a few more Olympics, and this is your first appearance, so I want you to experience and understand what the Olympics is all about…”

That was great advice. I had a grand time in Barcelona. It was a wonderful experience to meet and watch the legends in action. Watching Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson win the gold in basketball for the US dream team was the highlight.

It was an eye-opening experience to interact with the other athletes from other disciplines and have conversations about their training regimes and lifestyle.

That year, I played with Ramesh Krishnan in the doubles and we had a chance of winning a medal in doubles. We lost the medal-winning match to Goran Ivanisevic and Goran Prpic in the quarterfinal match and I remember sitting in the arena for over an hour after the match, contemplating how I would fulfil my dream of winning an Olympic medal.

I knew Krishnan would be retiring before the next Olympics in 1996 and I was also aware that if I I have to win a medal in the next Olympics, I had to focus on my singles.

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In the next four years, I worked extremely hard for my singles and prepared my body and tennis specifically for the altitude conditions I was going to face at Stone Mountain in Atlanta in 1996.

I travelled to far off countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, just to make sure that my body and mind were acclimatising well.

And then, Atlanta happened!

Magic…waiting to happen

When I got to Atlanta, on the Saturday before the opening ceremony, the draw was released and it wasn’t very kind. I was drawn to play Pete Sampras. By then, Sampras was one of the top seeds and pretty much the world No. 1! So, as the draw came out, I remember Jaidip Mukerjea — who was our non-playing captain — told me: “Tough luck, Lee. Tough draw…” I had worked so hard for this moment and I just couldn’t let things go. Back in my head, I knew something magical was waiting to happen.

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The next morning, we learnt that Sampras had pulled out of the tournament. And, Richey Reneberg was replacing him. At that point in time, Richey was not only one of the top-five doubles players in the world, he was among the top 20 in singles. It was not an easy match and he was one of the toughest opponents for me because of his style of playing.

He was an all-court player who had a fantastic two-handed backhand. I knew it was going to be a very tough match. I lost the first set and then won the second set, and after running him around for two sets, in the third set, when I got up for a break, Richey retired from exhaustion!

Winning this match made me realise that all the preparation I had done, leading into the Games, would unfold in the days to come.

One down, more to go…

In the second round, I played Nicolas Pereira of Venezuela. Nico was world No. 1 in juniors in 1989 — the year before I was. He is one of my dearest friends and he went on to become my first doubles partner later. Even today, we share a great rapport and he keeps telling me, “You won so many Grand Slams only because of me. I pushed you to the forehand side of the court only because my backhand is better than yours…” These are the memories I cherish from the tour! I beat Nico 6-2, 6-3.

In the third round, I faced Thomas Enqvist. TE, as I call him, was junior world No. 1 the year after me, in 1991. So, basically I played two former junior world No. 1s in two successive rounds and that actually helped since I was familiar with their style of play for many years. I knew exactly what to do against both Nico and TE, but when the Italian Renzo Furlan came across my path in the quarterfinals, I had no strategy for him, yet.

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My homework told me that he was a baseliner and that he was very, very fit. So I had to beat him on serve-and-volley tennis because we were playing in high-altitude conditions that benefited my natural style of play. That’s exactly what I did and I managed to beat him.

And then there was the semifinals. There came Andre Agassi!

The great obstacle

I did my homework well before facing Andre. I knew for a fact that beating him from the baseline was not possible. So I had to bring him out of his comfort zone and bring him to the net, and play to my strengths. I knew that he wouldn’t be able to beat me on serve-and-volley tennis, and I had to take him out of his rhythm.

I would serve and volley, hit drop shots and force Andre to move forward and backwards. That started paying off. It was the first time I was playing against Andre, so it was a new experience, and Andre’s playing style is one of the toughest for me in singles. Undoubtedly, he is one of the most versatile baseline players in the world with the best return of serve.

It was indeed a tough match. I played hard and managed to get him out of his rhythm in the first set. I had Andre serving at 5-6 (15-40) and found India having two set points to win the first set!

Down to set points, Andre hit a first serve into my body on the backhand side, so I played a chip return down the line to his backhand and ran to the net, putting the pressure back on him.

“My father has always been a great source of inspiration and my closest confidante. His words in the locker room that day gave me great motivation,” Leander says.   –  R. Ragu

 

I thought I had every passing shot covered and tempted him to go for the low-percentage cross-court backhand, which I also had covered.

The sheer brilliance of Andre is that, in a fraction of a second, he thought of and executed a shot, which I least expected — which was was right at my face. He hit a double-fisted backhand as hard as he could at my right chin. As my reaction time was limited, I tried to get out of the way and play a backhand volley into the open court, but as my wrist was in a vulnerable position, when I played that shot, the power of Andre’s double-fisted backhand ruptured a few tendons in my right playing wrist.

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As that happened, all the power in my wrist was gone and it seemed impossible to regain the touch and feel for direction. The lack of power and lack of direction made things very difficult for me and Andre marched on…to the final!

Opportunities don’t come often, but when they do, you gotta be ready

In Atlanta, I had to play for the bronze medal and I was drawn to play Fernando Meligeni from Brazil. He was a tenacious southpaw with a wicked lefty slice serve and a talented baseline game to match.

On my side, after the Andre match, I had my wrist wrapped in a solid cast for 24 hours to try and heal my injury as fast as I could.

On the match day morning, I went to warm up with my wrist heavily strapped and on my first touch of the ball, I realised I was in trouble. The pain that shot through my wrist and up into my arm, was unbearable and I had to stop my warm-up after the first shot.

I went back to the doctors, trainers and my father in the locker room to ask for advise. The doctor warned me of further injury. The physio, Doug Spreen, warned me that I would jeopardise the rest of my career and after listening to both of them, I requested some solitude.

I asked my father to join me in the locker room and sought his advice. My dad said to me, “I know you are going to play. But all I am going to tell you is, do not injure yourself any further. You are already hurt, do not jeopardise your career…”

He advised me to assess the situation within the first few games of the bronze-medal match and not push beyond, if it was impossible.

My father has always been a great source of inspiration and my closest confidant. His words in the locker room that day gave me great motivation.

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I went into that match knowing it was going to be all about mental strength and how much fame I could endure. In the first set, I was very clearly unable to handle the lack of strength and control in my playing wrist and lost the first set. In the second set, I shifted gears and was able to bounce back and win, with two breaks.

But in the third set, the pressure was really mounting as I found myself several break points down early. Fernando and I traded breaks and I knew this battle for the bronze medal was going to be about who could handle the pressure better and keep his mind calm. I was able to push my mind to a new level and also protect my injured wrist by making the rallies as short as possible.

My serve and volley, aggressive tennis, mounted the pressure on Fernando, and when his final passing shot down match point sailed over my head and beyond the baseline, my hands went up in the air.

And the tears rolling down my cheek were not only for the triumph, but also for the pain I endured to win a medal for myself and my country. Standing on the podium with a medal around my neck, along with Andre Agassi and Sergi Bruguera, and watching the Indian flag waving at an Olympic medal ceremony is a moment I will always be proud of.

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