I Was There – Watching Leander Paes End India’s Medal Curse

Credit: Olympics

As he turns 50, Leander Adrian Paes will be remembered for many things other than winning the Olympic Games bronze medal in 1996. In our minds, some athletes remain young and vibrant despite the passage of time. In our minds, some images are etched indelibly. Despite his numerous achievements on tennis courts across the world, his success at the Atlanta Olympics has few parallels.

For, it was a moment that unshackled India, a moment that inspired other athletes from the country to believe that an Olympic medal could be won. I shudder to think of how things would have been had his bronze medal not instilled enormous self-belief in several Indian athletes for them to add glittering chapters to India’s sporting history.

He was inspired by a cupboard full of jerseys worn by his parents, Vece Paes – a 1972 Olympic Games hockey medallist – and Jennifer, who had played basketball for India. This student of life, as he called himself, has used his tennis as an amazing vehicle to communicate with people, to bridge cultures, communities and languages.

Yes, it is one of the pleasures of my job to be able to tell the world that ‘I was there’.

In the run-up to Atlanta, I was in Ahmedabad in 1994 when Kapil Dev surpassed Sir Richard Hadlee as the world’s leading wicket-taker in Test cricket; in Bangalore, when India beat Pakistan in the 1996 World Cup cricket quarterfinal, and in Sharjah a year earlier when India beat Pakistan after many years. But this exceeded everything else. The joy of a lifetime.

The sight remains fresh in memory – Leander, his fists raised to the sky, signalling a triumph that reached out beyond one tennis match. It was a moment that richly deserved to not only be framed for eternity, but also recalled for the celebration that it sparked. More importantly, it remains a massive milestone in independent India’s sporting history.

India’s Olympic history, made rich by the hockey team’s success, had been punctuated by expectation and disappointment, anticipation and disillusionment. India had endured 16 years without a medal. And the wait for an individual one was longer and more painful. Leander, 23, ended both with a 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Fernando Meligeni, the Brazilian left-hander.

India had already seen Leander appear to drape the Tricolour over his soul each time he stepped on the court for India. But at Stone Mountain Park on the outskirts of Atlanta, some of us watched him do that like never before. A two-and-a-half-hour rain delay – and a lapse in concentration caused by a butterfly floating around the court – found him digging deep into his reserves.

Of course, he lived dangerously, and the 92-minute effort drained his mind more than his body. He relied on his mastery of the volley, winning 42 of his 76 points with approaches to the net. He dispelled the gathering gloom from his corner with a change in strategy, playing more like the Leander we knew.

He seemed helpless when he lost the first set without so much as a fight after his serve was broken in the seventh game, and he lost a second successive service game to concede the set inside half an hour. But it was mental strength that surfaced at the most crucial moment, and he roared back, attacking Meligeni’s serve and making the Brazilian run around more.

Leander faced a flashpoint early in the decider, being a break point down in the second game but handled the pressure admirably and fired an ace. He then broke the Meligeni’s serve to love to bring each Indian to the edge of their seats. Yet, when he dropped serve, we could not help recal every heartbreak suffered by India at the Olympic Games.

Images of track-and-field stars like Milkha Singh (1960) and PT Usha (1984) finishing fourth respectively came rushing into our minds. As did freeze frames of freestyle Wrestlers Sudesh Kumar and Prem Nath (1972), Jagmander Singh (1980) and Rajinder Singh (1984), who also couldn’t secure a podium finish.

Leander, though, was determined not to let the Indians leave Stone Mountain Park with disappointment as the dominant emotion. He literally and figuratively pulled up his socks to beat the man ranked way above him in the ATP pecking order. His work at the net improved so much that Leander chose to pitch camp there and pressure Meligeni to make mistakes.

His volleying took the sting out of the Meligeni’s strokes and he rode on his strength at the net to break his serve in the seventh game. He answered Meligeni’s power with soft touch, covering the angles so well that his rival was forced to hit too wide or too long. He retained his own serve on a third deuce, relieved that the umpire over-ruled a linesman who had called a lob out.

Serving with two bronze-medal points, Leander made Indian hearts skip a beat or three when he hit a backhand long, throwing Meligeni a slender lifeline. But when Meligeni ballooned a return over the baseline, the whole of India joined Leander in ecstatic relief.

Finally, Indian hearts – not just Leander’s – were unbridled, emotion surging through every vein as we enjoyed each moment. Finally, one man answering to the name of Leander Adrian Paes ensured that a vexing question – 940 million Indians and yet no medal? – would not crop up this time. The dark clouds lifted and there was bright sunshine.

Quickly, very quickly, I scanned the glorious sight. Leander raising his clenched fists in victory, saluting the crowd before offering a handshake and embracing Meligini at the net. Shaking the umpire’s hand. I packed my laptop, my report awaiting completion as I brought myself to leave the press box.

“Deadline is at hand,” the professional half of my mind told me. “How about getting on with the job?”

“Wait. Don’t you want to see more of this?” countered the other half, which had made my heart thump excitedly against the wall of my chest. I listened to this voice and stayed on a couple of minutes longer by the courtside. Leander ran across the court to hug his parents, who came together to see their son end India’s medal drought, and then shook hands with Jaidip Mukerjea, the Davis Cup captain, and Mahesh Bhupathi, then a friend and doubles partner.

“Get a move on,” said the professional voice. “They must be holding the edition back for you. Get a move on.”

“How can you be so cruel?” said its romantic counterpart. “This does not happen often. After all, you were a teenager when the India hockey team claimed the World Cup in 1975. And you had just landed your first job – and were far removed from the field of action – when the cricketers won the 1983 World Cup. How can you desert your post and go indoors when it is all happening out here?”

Indeed, Sangeeta Rani Puri, the freestyle swimmer, poured a bottle of water on her head: she must have understood the tension raging in Leander’s mind better than many others in the Indian’s cheering party.

Then again, I didn’t want to miss the deadline and the greatest chance to tell the world that I was there. Ensuring that my newspaper, The Pioneer, was one of the few Indian publications to have a first-hand report of Leander’s great achievement the morning after, I got into a bus that took me away from the venue of one of Indian sport’s biggest achievements.

Also Read: Leander Paes, Patriotism and Ending India’s Individual Medal Drought

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