To mark the 30th anniversary of tennis’s readmission to the Olympic Games as a full medal sport, the ITF is showcasing an indelible Olympic memory every morning for 30 days.
The latest celebrated moment is again from the 1996 Games in Atlanta but for the first time in this series of recollections it does not feature a victor of a gold medal match. The focus today is upon India’s Leander Paes, who won bronze in the men’s singles.
Despite a severely injured wrist, Paes navigated a consolation match against Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni to claim bronze and become the first Indian to win an individual Olympic medal since wrestler KD Jadhav in 1952.
Paes’s exploits resulted in the Indian government awarding him the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award -- his country’s highest sporting accolade.
“When I finally won [against Meligeni], when I hit that last serve and his return sailed long, I just looked over to my father, who is also an Olympic medal winner,” said Paes. “He won his in 1972 in field hockey, and that was in Munich when the Israeli and Palestinian trouble happened.
“My mum was with him because my mum played for India in basketball. During those four days, after the Games were shut down in ’72, I was conceived. So I am basically an Olympic child.
“I’ve lived for the Olympics. I’ve lived to emulate what my dad has done. The Olympics to me has been a life calling.”
Wild card Paes appeared determined to make his presence felt at Stone Mountain Park and his progression to the semifinals included the dispatching of a number of seeded players.
His first round tussle with doubles specialist Richey Reneberg was locked at one set apiece when the American was forced to retire due to the groin injury which had plagued him in the build up to the Olympics.
Paes had been teetering in the second set – the men’s singles were reduced from the best of five sets to the best of three in 1996 – before navigating a tiebreak. Eleventh seed Reneberg retired with Paes leading 1-0 in the third set.
After surging past Nicolas Pereira of Venezuela 62 63 in the second round, Paes then accounted for Swedish heavyweight and third seed Thomas Enqvist in round three, 75 76(3).
Renzo Furlan of Italy, who was seeded No. 14 for the tournament, was then brushed aside in straights sets in the quarterfinals, before eventual winner Andre Agassi put paid to Paes’s dreams of a gold medal in the last four.
“In the semifinals against Agassi I had torn the ligaments between my wrist and my elbow and for 24 hours I was in a cast between the semifinals and the bronze medal match,” added Paes.
“But when the adrenaline is pumping and you’re playing at such a big moment for a country like India where you have 1.3 billion responsibilities, you tend to put your country before you. That’s what I do.
“On the morning I couldn’t even hit a ball. I was in a lot of pain. My whole wrist was swollen. But they cut the cast off and let me out there.”
Paes proceeded to defeat his good friend Meligeni 36 62 64. He said: “I was one of the first Indians to win a medal since independence and since then we’ve got shooters that have won, boxers that have won. I helped open the door, which feels nice.”