New Delhi, The year was 1996 and no Indian had won an individual medal at the Olympics 44 years prior to the Atlanta Games. However, that year proved to be decisive for the country as Leander Paes defeated Fernando Meligeni to win a bronze medal in the men’s singles category at the prestigious quadrennial tournament.
Paes was first drawn against a not so easy opponent in Pete Sampras, but the latter pulled out of the tournament due to an injury and the Indian was pitted against Richey Reneberg in the first round. He managed to put across a string of victories to set up a dream semi-final against Andre Agassi.
“I knew I could not beat Agassi on power, I could not beat him on baseline stroke to groundstroke rally,” the 18-time Grand Slam champion said while speaking during the fifth episode of ‘The Finish Line’ hosted by Saurav Ghosal.
“I knew that his ability to move side to side on a baseline was cat-like hence I just had to play to my strengths to get any better of him, but during the course of the match I ended up injuring myself as the tendons of my wrist were ruptured. I insisted my doctor that I wanted to continue playing hence I just wrapped my wrist and went back into the match, but that wasn’t going to help as the pain was too excruciating,” he added.
Paes had a day off before his bronze medal playoff match against Meligeni and his doctor cautioned him to not strain his wrist too much as he could end up jeopardising his career, but he persisted to follow his Olympic dream and take on Meligeni.
When asked about his physical preparation before the game and how he managed to stay positive in spite of a major injury, Paes said, “I knew that the Atlanta Olympics were going to be tough from a physical perspective as it was being played at a higher altitude, so I went through a rigorous transformation in my physical and mental strength.”
“I was a little broken after losing to Agassi at stone water, but all the years of hard work that I had put in and the 15 years of blood and sweat I couldn’t have let all that effort go in vain as I decided to take on Fernando in the bronze medal match and keep my hopes alive of clinching an Olympic medal for the country.”
Paes ended up winning the match 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 and brought the individual Olympic glory to the country after a long gap of 44 years.