Leander Paes joins the starcast at Trailblazers Conclave 2.0

Leander Paes
Leander Paes (Source: X)

We remember watching Leander Paes play Andre Agassi at Atlanta in 1996 and the pride we felt each time Leander stunned the crowd with one of his fancy drop shots, too many of which might have ultimately cost him the match. Leander, then ranked 127 in the world, was someone who raised the bar a series of notches when he donned the national colours at the Olympics. In qualifying for the semi-finals, Leander upset four competitors ranked higher than him in the ATP rankings.

As Rohit Brijnath, one of our finest sports writers, who covered Atlanta, had written: “Here was a player who by sheer force of his passion and rage transcended ‘his averageness when his nation’s flag flew’, a rare non-cricketing hero who moved India like no other, a tennis player who was to be hailed as the ‘spiritual leader’ of a new movement of ‘the art of the possible’.”

No history of Indian sport can be complete without an elegy to the grit and determination of Leander Paes. In an age of instant stardom for even the worst performers in the national cricket team, Leander soldiered on, relatively unsung.

Leander Paes has won Grand Slam after Grand Slam (in doubles) and beaten far higher-ranked opponents while representing the country in the Davis Cup. When he won his Olympic medal in 1996, he ended a 44-year individual medal drought for India.

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Leander Paes
Leander Paes (Source: X)

It has often been suggested that Leander is an average tennis player who reached another level when he donned India colours. While on the one hand this is meant as praise – he continued to remain patriotic after 25 years of the professional grind – on the other, it dwarfs all his other achievements; many Grand Slam titles, which helped reinstate India on the world tennis map.

If Andre Agassi could play the US Open all through his career as an American, play before his ‘home’ crowd and make them weep and dance at the same time, what makes us feel Leander only played the Davis Cup or the Olympics for India and all other tournaments for himself?

When Leander beat Fernando Melligeni of Brazil in the battle for third place at Atlanta, the country was at first too stunned to react. Finally, the medal drought had ended. But the true sportsman in Leander did not want to ride high on his achievements and come back to India to bask in Olympic glory. Rather, he stayed back in the US for a while to improve on his rankings, allowing the somewhat superficial euphoria to die down a little.

His reaction after winning the bronze is yet another tribute to his sportsmanship. “It’s just amazing how things can happen with a little bit of effort. And that’s really been my story at the Olympics,” he had said before adding: “I’ve just been putting in effort match after match, point after point… I guess the 44 years and 16 years that we have not won a medal was getting to me. It took a while to get over my nerves out there. The effort paid off in the end.”

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