Leander Paes – Born to Greatness

Leander Adrian Paes was born to be an Olympian. His mother represented the country at basketball while his father Vece was a member of the Indian hockey team that won the bronze medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Sport was clearly in his blood. Twenty four years later at Altanta he emulated his father in wining bronze at the Olympics – the first Indian individual medal since wrestler Kashaba Jadhav’s bantamweight bronze at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.

The greatness of Leander’s achievement is that it was unexpected. He was after all not even in the top 100 of the ATP rankings on the eve of the Olympics so how did he pull it off? It may sound too good to be true in this day and age of cynicism but the fact is that Leander is being totally honest when he says over and over again that it is playing for the country that inspires him. Indeed he has no really notable achievement in singles on the ATP tour or in Grand Slam events. But when he has the country’s flag flying besides him Leander is as a man possessed.

Even the world’s best can’t stand in the way of such fierce patriotism. Just ask Jeremy Bates, Wayne Ferreira, Arnaud Boetsch, Goran Ivanisevic, Jacob Hlasek and Henri Leconte among some leading names. These are some of the much higher ranked players that Leander has shocked in Davis Cup play. Leander first took part in the Olympics at Barcelona in 1992 when he and Ramesh Krishnan paired to reach the quarterfinals of the doubles when they lost to Croats Ivanisevic and Goran Pripic in a close match over four sets. Thus they narrowly missed getting a bronze.

The Indian pair had earlier caused the biggest upset of the event when they stunned top seeds Todd Woodbridge and John Fitzgerald of Australia in the second round. Leander’s moment in the sun came four years later at Atlanta. The path to a medal had a somewhat fortuitous beginning. Up against No 11 seed Richey Reneberg in the first round it was one set all when the American retired with a hamstring injury after dropping the opening game of the decider with the overall score being 6-7, 7-6, 1-0.

Nicolas Perreira of Venezuela was swept away in straight sets 7-5, 6-3 but then came the big test with Leander up against third seed Thomas Enqvist in the third round. However Leander got the better of the Swede 7-5, 7-6 and suddenly there was talk of him ending up with a medal. Till 1992 all semifinalists were assured of a bronze but it was different this time around. There would be a play-off match for the bronze between the losing semifinalists. After beating Italy’s Renzo Furian 6-1, 7-5 in the quarterfinals Leander found himself face to face against top seed Andre Agassi.

The American, winner of the Wimbledon singles title in 1992 was ranked third in the world while Leander was ranked 128. But to Leander these were just numbers. When it came to playing for his country he always let his heart rule his head. Agassi won 7-6 (6), 6-3 but this was no ordinary straight sets win. Leander showed typical fighting spirit to take the first to the tie breaker and Agassi had to fight every inch to get the better of his plucky opponent in 90 minutes. Now came the crunch match for what would be India’s first individual Olympic gold in 44 years.

Standing between Leander and the medal was Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni ranked 96th. Broken in the seventh and ninth games Leander lost the first set 6-3. But after that it was Leander all the way. Charging the net time and again and hustling his opponent into errors Leander took the next two sets 6-2 and 6-4 to keep his tryst with history giving his country their first medal after three barren Olympics. It was celebration time and Leander was given a tumultuous welcome when he returned home and proudly displayed