The year was 1996. India hadn't won an individual Olympic medal since KD Jadhav's bronze at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
India had sent a 49-member contingent to the Atlanta Games with expectation levels almost nil. Not a single athlete was touted as a possible medal winner who could end the 44-year drought.
Not even Leander Paes. By then he was a prolific junior who was trying to make a mark in the senior circuit. In fact, the Kolkata-born ace didn't even have a singles match win at the Grand Slams to show for. His world ranking was 126 at that time and he was a wildcard in singles.
Leander Paes in Atlanta: The Underdog Story
Clearly, Paes arrived in Atlanta as the underdog. But he compensated for his lack of experience and low ranking with his staunch passion and steely determination. That saw him get the job done against Thomas Enqvist who was No. 10 in the world at that time. Paes also met the 26th-ranked Renzo Furlan and he dismissed that challenge too.
In the semifinals, he squared off against one of the best players of all time - Andre Agassi. At the time, the American was a multiple Grand Slam champion, who was placed at No. 3 in the world.
Leander Paes showed a lot of character in taking his illustrious opponent to a tie-breaker and earned plaudits from all corners, despite going down 6-7, 3-6.
He next faced the 93rd-ranked Brazilian Fernando Meligeni for the all-important bronze medal play-off and a chance at creating history for the country. When the realization dawned upon him, Paes understandably became a bundle of nerves.
It resulted in his opponent grabbing the first set 6-3. Slowly all hopes of a medal began to fade away.
Despite things not going his way, Leander Paes' unpredictable game helped him come back with a bang. Helping him also was his copious amounts of self-belief and the final result was 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 in favor of the Indian.
India's long wait for an individual medal at the Olympics had finally ended.
Leander Paes' Atlanta story is one of sheer conviction and guts. Nobody gave Paes a chance in a field that had some established names of the sport. But it was his dream to bring back a medal for his country that kept him going.
Most cherished trophy for Leander Paes
Today, Leander Paes has gone on to add 18 doubles Grand Slam titles to his illustrious resume. He has reached the pinnacle of the world rankings in men's doubles, and has also delivered numerous Davis Cup victories for the nation.
The evergreen tennis icon has represented India at the Olympics as many as seven times. Yet, it was that priceless moment in Atlanta that remains his most cherished trophy.
“I would say that winning my Olympic medal would be my most cherished trophy. Winning the Atlanta Olympics, because it was in singles, was my most cherished because I did it for our country, I did it for our flag," told Leander Paes on Sportskeeda Live.
Leander Paes' medal inspired a nation starved of sporting glory
Leander Paes' accomplishment becomes all the more important when one considers the fact that he set the wheel in motion for India to win individual medals at every Olympics. Since that watershed moment in Atlanta, India has won medals at every edition of the mega-quadrennial Games.
He showed the way and instilled confidence in an entire nation that it could be done. Paes' commitment to the sport and his fearlessness on the big stage was exemplary. Watching him, India learned to dream and an entire generation of youngsters wanted to emulate his feat. Since his Atlanta bronze, Indian athletes have won 13 individual Olympic medals, highlighted by Abhinav Bindra's glittering gold in 2008.
“There are so many individual medal winners who have come post-1996. But I was very happy to be the first one to inspire those individual athletes," said Leander Paes on inspiring fellow Indians.
That one bronze started a revolution in Indian sports. A country, that only had hockey medals in the 40 years leading up to that particular moment, woke up to the fact that they too can rule other sports.
State-of-the-art academies were set up, top coaches were brought in, investments were made. India embraced sports the way it had never done before.
"Leander’s success in Atlanta was a reminder that we had it in us to be the best. It reinforced many athletes’ belief and aspirations," Abhinav Bindra told The Hindu on how that one moment inspired the whole nation.
Leander's unbridled passion for his craft and his exceptional longevity motivated his fellow athletes. His lively attitude on the court has made sports-watching such a thrilling affair and has inspired so many young kids. Today India has won 28 medals at the Olympics and aims to add to it in Tokyo next year.
But perhaps no bronze medal has carried as much weight as his. It was what single-handedly changed the entire sporting ecosystem in India. It was a bronze worth its weight in gold.Published 23 Nov 2020, 00:47 IST