75 years of independence, 75 iconic moments from Indian sports: No 52 - 1996: Leander Paes wins bronze at Atlanta Olympics

India will complete 75 years of Independence this year. Here is a series acknowledging 75 great sporting achievements by Indian athletes.

Leander Paes at the 1996 Olympics (File Photo)

Leander Paes at the 1996 Olympics (File Photo) | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

India will complete 75 years of Independence this year. Here is a series acknowledging 75 great sporting achievements by Indian athletes.

India will complete 75 years of Independence this year. Here is a series acknowledging 75 great sporting achievements by Indian athletes.  Sportstar will present one iconic sporting achievement each day, leading up to August 15, 2022.

August 3, 1996: Leander Paes wins bronze medal at Atlanta Olympics

Leander Paes won India its first individual Olympic medal in 44 years when he won bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Paes, then 22, entered the Games as a wildcard and went on to manage a historic podium finish.

The Indian won eight straight sets to set up a semifinal clash against Andre Agassi. Paes could not get past the American, going down 7-6, 6-3 in the semifinal and then took on Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni in the bronze medal match.

Despite falling a set behind early, Paes managed a 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win to take the bronze.

Leander Paes on his 1996 Atlanta Olympics bronze: Tears of triumph and pain

“Tough luck, Lee. Tough draw...” Jaidip Mukerjea, our non-playing captain, said soon after the draw was released before the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Games. I was to play Pete Sampras, who by then was pretty much the world No. 1!

Back in my head, I knew something magical was waiting to happen.

The next morning, we found out that Richey Reneberg was replacing Sampras, who had withdrawn.

Back then, Richey was among the top 20 in singles. I knew it was going to be a tough match. I lost the first set, but won the second, and after running him around for two sets, in the third set, when I got up for a break, Richey retired from exhaustion!

In the second round, I played Nicolas Pereira of Venezuela, followed by Thomas Enqvist in the third round and Renzo Furlan in the quarterfinals. 

And there came Andre Agassi in the semifinals!

Even though we had a great fight, Andre’s backhand ruptured a few tendons in my right playing wrist. It made things difficult for me and Andre reached the final!

I had to face Fernando Meligeni from Brazil for the bronze.

After the game against Andre, I had my wrist wrapped in a solid cast for 24 hours to try and heal my injury as fast as I could.

On the match-day morning, with the first touch of the ball, I realised I was in trouble. The pain that shot through my wrist into my arm was unbearable and I had to stop my warm-up after the first shot.

I went back to the locker room seeking advice. The physio, Doug Spreen, warned me against playing with the injury. My dad said, “I know you are going to play. But all I am going to tell you is, do not injure yourself any further. You are already hurt, do not jeopardise your career...”

He advised me to assess the situation within the first few minutes of the match and not push beyond.

I knew the match was going to test my mental strength. In the first set, I was unable to have control in my playing wrist and lost. In the second set, I shifted gears and was able to bounce back and win, with two breaks.  

But in the third set, I found myself several break points down early. Fernando and I traded breaks and I protected my injured wrist by making shorter rallies.

My aggressive tennis mounted the pressure on Fernando, and when his final passing shot down match point sailed over my head and beyond the baseline, my hands went up in the air.

And the tears rolling down my cheek were not only for the triumph, but also for the pain I endured to win a medal for my country. It indeed was a proud moment!

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