Every time an Olympics is round the corner these days, there is an air of expectation around the Indian contingent leaving for the quadrennial event as there are at least half a dozen medal prospects.
But that was hardly the case in the 80s and 90s when participation seemed to be the primary motto; perhaps with the exception of the inimitable PT Usha, and the longing, more than anything, that the men’s hockey team will recreate some old magic and put in an effort to challenge for a podium finish.
The 1996 Atlanta Games was not any different; there was hardly any hope that India’s four-decade wait for an individual medal will end. The one and only individual Olympic medal for India before 1996 had come way back at 1952 Helsinki Games and not many were hoping for that drought to end anytime soon when the Indian squad left for Atlanta. In fact, there had not been a single medal to celebrate for India since Moscow 1980.
But a certain Leander Paes was ready to change all that.
Paes had needed a wild card to get into the Olympics draw but that was probably expected given the qualification rules. But India’s most successful Davis Cup player had already been planning ahead since the 1992 Barcelona Games. He had been working extra hard on his overall fitness to play more singles matches and played many tournaments at high altitude venues like Belo Horizonte, Colarado and few more cities in Latin America.
Most of all, as Paes had himself put it in many interviews, he was probably destined to win an Olympic medal that year.
World No 1 Pete Sampras withdrew from the tournament citing an Achilles injury and Paes was drawn against his replacement Richey Reneberg in what was the first computerised draw in the Olympics history.
The Indian lost the opening set in a tie-break, barely managed to force a decider and Reneberg then conceded the match after losing the opening game.
Paes then brushed aside third seed Thomas Enqvist in straight sets in the third round and then packed off 14th seed Renzo Furlan in the quarter-finals to set up a semi-final clash against Andre Agassi, the eventual gold medallist.
Till the Barcelona Olympics, reaching the semi-final would guarantee a medal. But rules were changed before Atlanta and it meant that Paes needed to win one more match to end India’s 44-year wait for an individual medal.
In between that run to the semi-final, Paes had also been in the Centennial Park when a bomb exploded on July 27, 1996 and had to regroup himself and stay focused on the job at hand.
He almost took the first set against Agassi but the American came up with a back-hand return on one of the set points that snapped a tendon between the Indian’s wrist and elbow. Though Paes managed to complete the match (in defeat), the pain was unbearable and he had to put his hand in cast for the next 24 hours.
The bronze medal play off was a topsy-turvy affair with Fernando Meligeni, who was also a replacement in the main draw, taking the opening set. It looked like the Indian could end without a medal after all as he was under pressure on his serve in the fourth game.
And that is when Paes believes he hit the ‘zone’, winning the set without dropping another game and then went on to win the decider and clinch the medal.
Calling that bronze medal playoff one of his best matches, Leander Paes said years later:
One of them was in my bronze medal match when I played Meligeni with a torn wrist tendon - it was 60% torn. I was like bandaged up completely. And after I lost that first set, I just went into a trance. And that whole second and third set I was just in a zone. I remember a butterfly sat on my racquet in the beginning of the second set. And I lived my whole life to play the Olympics – both my parents are Olympians – and from that time that little mascot – I called her my mascot – she was actually red, blue and white. The butterfly sat on my racquet and I went into a zone for two sets. And next thing I know I have the medal around my neck.— (via Web Archive)
For those of you who have just heard stories of Leander winning the bronze in Atlanta, here is a video that is sure to inspire you: the entire medal ceremony where a proud young Indian leads Andre Agassi (gold) and Sergi Brugera (silver) out on the arena.
In this short interview to CNN Paes talked about wanting to emulate his father and how he specifically worked hard after 1992 Barcelona to win a medal in Atlanta:
You can watch Paes speak to the Olympic channel about the medal winning run here.