Leander Paes relives his seven Olympics appearances

Leander is the only tennis player in the world to have played seven Olympics. For India, he is the only athlete to have achieved the feat.

Leander Paes is the only tennis player in the world to have played seven Olympics.   -  FILE PHOTO/ SUDHAKARA JAIN

 

Leander Paes played the first of his seven Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona, when he was 19.

When there is a big question mark over the 18-time Grand Slam champion’s ability to retain the hunger to play the eighth Olympics in Tokyo, the 46-year-old Leander was soaked in nostalgia and emotionally shaken while watching the clips from the seven Olympics, in a conversation with the Olympic Channel.

“Longer you run, stronger your heart,” Leander remembered the slogan that had stayed with him from childhood.

“In the Olympics, there are about 10,000 athletes. Each athlete has a story, about how they got there. Some of us are lucky to win medals. In my eyes, every single Olympian is a champion. I salute the passion and spirit of the athlete,” he said.

Leander’s Atlanta Olympics singles bronze medal behind Andre Agassi and Sergi Bruguera may be fresh in the minds of connoisseurs, 24 years after it was accomplished, but many may not remember that Leander was close to winning a doubles medal with Ramesh Krishnan in the Barcelona Games in 1992.

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“We had beaten the top seeds, John Fitzgerald and Todd Woodbridge in the second round,” recalled Leander, while taking glimpses of the 6-7(3), 7-5, 4-6, 3-6 loss in the quarterfinals to Goran Ivanisevic and Goran Prpic of Croatia.

Leander reminisced about his matches against Andre Agassi and Fernando Meligeni. “I still chat with Fernando. I tell him, this medal has your name also,” he said.

Leander fondly remembered the way he had travelled the world for one year with the Olympic medal.

Athens was the best chance for a doubles medal, but Leander and Mahesh Bhupathi had lost to Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic of Croatia in the bronze play-off.

“We had a match point. I had worked so hard to get to Athens, after being wrongly diagnosed for brain tumour. It was the toughest Olympics’’, Leander said.

Leander is the only tennis player in the world to have played seven Olympics. For India, he is the only athlete to have played seven Olympics. In Rio, Leander had bettered the record of six Olympics by Randhir Singh, the Asian Games gold medallist shooter, IOC member and former secretary general of the Indian Olympic Association.

“I love rewriting the history books. It will be great for India to have the record of a tennis player competing in eight Olympics. The physical fitness is the easy part. With one more year, the emotional happiness and mental fitness are required. Once tennis starts, I will take a call,” he added.

He heartily credited his family for the enviable journey, especially his father Dr. Vece Paes, who had won the hockey bronze in the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Leander Paes at a felicitation event in New Delhi in 1996.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

Taking care of his 75-year-old father and his daughter, 14-year-old Aiyana in Mumbai, cooking for them, cleaning the dishes, watering plants, washing clothes and mopping up the home, Leander said that he was happy with the first ‘time off’ in his 30-year professional career.

With Leander bringing his father on the video chat, the senior Paes acknowledged that his son had inherent talent and fast twitch muscles which made him quick. “The support system, the coach, parents, the Davis Cup captain have all played their role. On your own, it is difficult,” he said.

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Leander also pointed out that he had played men’s doubles with 136 partners, and mixed doubles with 26. Though he reeled off names of many players including the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, with whom he played for the Washing Kastles, which had the slogan ‘’refuse to lose’’, driving the team to six titles in eight years, Leander said that Radek Stepanek, Mahesh Bhupathi, Martina Hingis were special for different reasons.

He remembered that he had to sleep in the locker room during a Challenger in Worlfsbruck in Germany, as he was left with only 20 francs. He won the doubles title with Donald Johnson then. “I could not sleep that night. I told myself that I would never be in that position again,” Leander said, quite proud about breaking through despite not having “much infrastructure and money”.

“I have 30 years of experience playing the game. My dad has 50 years of knowledge’’, Leander said, about the heady concoction that had masterminded such a fascinating journey.

He is hopeful that mankind will emerge the “best version” of itself from the lockdown, and make the world “a happy place for others”.

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