Leander Paes Birthday: Reliving the Indian tennis legend’s historic Atlanta 1996 Bronze medal

Leander Paes faced his dear friend Fernando Meligeni in the bronze medal match and returned victorious with his maiden Olympic medal.

Leander Paes
Leander Paes

Eight career Grand Slam doubles titles and 10 career Grand Slam mixed doubles championships winner Leander Paes turns 48 today. The tennis star is one of the most celebrated sportspersons in the country. And on his 48th birthday, we relive the most significant achievement of his illustrious career, his bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Paes became the first Indian since 1952 to win an individual Olympic medal with the victory 25 years ago. The then 22-year-old Paes entered the 1996 Games as a wildcard and went on to end the nation’s 44 year wait for an individual Olympic medal. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the best of starts as he was drawn against Pete Sampras, a legend who was at his best then.

When I got to Atlanta, I saw that I had drawn Pete Sampras in the first round and all my contemporaries were tapping me on the back and telling me bad luck, it’s a tough draw. But I somehow felt that there was magic about Atlanta,” Paes had earlier told the Olympics Channel.

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.

Leander Paes’ preparations for the Atlanta Games

Bronze medallist Leander Paes at the 1996 Atlanta Games
Bronze medallist Leander Paes at the 1996 Atlanta Games

Following a horrid show at the Barcelona Olympics, Leander Paes prepared for Atlanta Olympics with utmost focus and dedication. The Indian legend even skipped the pro tour as he trained at high-altitude locations to prepare himself for the uphill task that awaited him. His hard work paid off as he became the first Indian tennis player to win an Olympic medal.

You know, I prepared for Atlanta very specifically. As soon as (1992) Barcelona finished, I spent four years preparing for Atlanta.

I even took time off the Pro tour to play in tournaments that have high altitude. It resembled the conditions that were there in Stone Mountain, Atlanta. I played in all the hard courts with high altitude in South America,” he added.

Paes won eight straight sets as he stormed into the semifinal and that was where the going got tough for him. He lost the semifinal game to Andre Agassi 7-6, 6-3 as his wrist tendons burst. For the next 24 hours, he was forced to wear a hard cask and didn’t get off well in the bronze medal match.

Paes lost the first set 3-6 to his dear friend Fernando Meligeni. As he was serving at 1-2; 30-40 in the second set, Paes shares that a mysterious force took over him. The seven-time Olympian adds that he lost track of the points as the game went one as he was in a “zone”.

Something magical happened and I got into what us athletes call ‘the zone’, where you really don’t remember what happened for that 45-minute period. When I saved the break point, won that game, won that second set and served for the match at 5-4 in the third, I got into a zone where the crowd, the ambience and the pressure situation, all the nuances of what happened, I don’t even remember the point because I was in such a trance,” Paes said.

Leander Paes won the second and third sets 6-2, 6-4 respectively, to bring home the bronze. He was the only Indian medalist at the Atlanta Games and it was one to cherish for ages.

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