In an interview with India’s ace Squash player Sourav Ghoshal, Indian Tennis ace Leander Paes shares his experience of playing at the Barcelona Olympics with Ramesh Krishnan and takes us through that journey towards winning that bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
You reached the quarter finals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in doubles with Ramesh Krishnan. You were one win away from a medal.
What made you shift and focus on singles for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics?
In 1992, my mental space at that point was to represent India in the Olympics. I had to qualify for my first Olympics in Barcelona and I went off to Osaka, Japan and won the singles qualifying via two or three matches to get myself to Barcelona.
Then myself and Ramesh got to the quarter finals of the doubles event and back then, there were four medals given out. Two bronze medals for both the semi-finalists, so when we played Goran Ivanisevic and his partner in the quarter finals, we were playing for a medal.
When we lost that medal match, I realized that Ramesh was retiring from tennis and he was not going to be around at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I also realized that there were no youngsters who were actually going to be prepared enough to win a medal in 4 years. I sat on that bench after we lost the quarter finals for about 2 hours and 45 minutes and I kind of reinvented my train of thought and I said for the next four years between 92 Barcelona and 96 Atlanta – I was going to transform my physical strength and my body.
I was going to transform my mental attitude for singles. And I was going to actually play off in places that were in high altitude which were similar to the stone mountain arena in Atlanta.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Semis match – you had your match against the great Andre Agassi. A match, which if you won, would have assured India a medal. What was your thought process going into that match?
I knew that I could not beat Agassi on power. I could not beat him on baseline ground stroke to ground stroke rallies. I knew that his ability to move side to side on the baseline was cat-like whereas my strength was to move up and back as a serve and volley player.
So my thought process at that point on the morning of the match was to take Andre out of his comfort zone. Hit drop shots to make him come to the net or hit short balls low down, so he couldn’t attack them but it pulls him out of his comfort zone and brings him to the net or get myself to the net and play him on my strengths.
In the first set, India was up with Andre Agassi serving 5-6 15-40. So we had two set points to win that first set. Generally in the semi-final stages of a tournament, the skills are so well polished that everyone’s playing top quality tennis.
We knew that in those high altitude fast conditions, whoever won the first set was going to be in the driver’s seat and would be able to dictate the play in a best of three set match. It wasn’t like a grand slam which is five sets, in which you still have time to come back but to win a first set in the best of three match on a fast surface and with those conditions is huge.
At 5-6 15-40, Andre hit a first serve into my body on the backhand side. I hit the backhand approach to his back and when I came to the net, I had the down the line passing shot covered, the body shot covered, had the backhand smash and the forehand smash covered as I could jump and get it with my athleticism. I tempted him to go for the lowest percentage shot which is short cross court in my mind and I left that open thinking that even if he goes there I’m gonna put in a dive which is my trademark shot and hit a backhand drop shot winner, to win the first set.
He hit one shot but I wasn’t expecting it. You have a fraction of a second to recover on that shot, which is, he hit this double-fisted backhand as fast as he could at 230-235 clicks an hour right at my face. When he hit it at my face, I tried to get out of the way to play it into the open court because the ball came at me in that angle and I tried to play it off here into the open court for a winner and as you know with all the wrist work that we have to do in tennis and squash, my wrist was in a vulnerable position.
As the ball hit my racquet, it flew out of my hand and hit my jaw and fell down. My wrist bent backwards and I had ruptured the tendon between my wrist and my elbow and seventy percent of that tendon was ruptured which I didn’t know at the time.
I just knew I felt excruciating pain and I called the trainer Doug Spreen who came on to the court, tested my wrist – he tested for strength and flexibility and he said
Lee I think you ruptured the tendons in your wrist. I think we need to stop this match because you could jeopardize your career and we need to go and get your MRIDoug Spreen, official trainer of the ATP at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games
In the heat of the moment, which you know all too well, we athletes are a different breed. An Athlete’s threshold of pain is so immense that we play through pain a lot. We play when we are not hundred percent fit over and over and we’re not hundred percent injury free a lot.
My threshold of pain is very very high and I asked him to wrap my wrist and let me out there again to play well. I went back on that court and he had strapped my wrist all the way from halfway up my forearm into my arm and he kept that wristband so tight that I couldn’t even rotate my wrist a little bit and I went on to lose the next breakpoint that I had, which was set point at 56 30-40 that Andre was still serving. I lost the tie break. I lost the second set and the match.
I felt my dream was slipping away. Up till from the opening ceremony from four years before Atlanta, everything was focused to this moment, but when I hurt my wrists and I lost to Agassi, I felt that dream just slipping away.
You lost your semis, then you had the 36 hrs break and then you lost the first semis in the bronze medal match. How did you cope with that whole situation?
I knew that after I lost to Andre Agassi on that summer afternoon in Stone Mountain Tennis Center in Atlanta, I knew that I was broken not literally in terms of the tendons being 70% broken, but I knew that all the years of hard work that I had put in – the 15 years of sweat & blood, the 4:30 AM wake up calls in Chennai where I used to train when I was at the Britannia Academy from the age of 12 to 18, the sacrifices of not spending a birthday home since I was 12 years old, missing both my sister’s wedding because of my tennis, not being able to go out and hang out with my friends at the end of the corner street at a chai shop in Baliganj because of the fact of the hard yards that we had to put in for tennis to achieve a medal.
I knew that that afternoon that I would have to muster up some courage from deep inside and muster up a sense of passion, that was even beyond my own threshold of pain.
So I went back into the locker room and I remember I was in tears sitting on the ice bucket in the locker room after I lost to Agassi and my dad walked in and he ruffled my head and said
“Tough luck kid. You know, you’re gonna have a chance in 48 hours”. I just put my wrist up and I said what about this?
He said the human body is an amazing healing machine. He said sometimes in life, it’s about mind over the body. And he said if I know one person in this world who can achieve that, it’s you.
I get emotional about him but my dad is my guru. He’s my mentor. He’s my confidant. He’s my doctor. He’s my champion. He’s my best friend. But also, he’s my guiding light. The inspiration that he continues to give me is probably why I am the man who I am today.
The 36 hours in between to semi finals and the bronze medal match was not easy and when I came out the morning of the match, they cut the cast off and they put a soft cast on it and they made it so sturdy that I couldn’t even rotate my wrist or just move it because every movement I did, the tendon would just crate which was just tremendously painful.
So yeah, that time was not easy but had to dig deep.
How was the experience of winning that medal for India and standing on that podium?
To stand on that Olympic podium with your Indian flag with the tri-color going up. And even if the American national anthem was being played for Agassi getting the Gold and Sergi Bruguera getting the silver, the Tiranga was was going up at the Olympics but to really sum it up
Every single one of the Indians’ names are on that strip. That bronze medal in Atlanta belongs to every single Indian on the planet because that’s what we did it for. In my times of hardships when I doubted myself and during those 36 hours, it was the passion that I had to play for the people and to prove their expectations right, to prove that we Indians can be world champions on a global stage in a professional sport like tennis which has got competition from every part in the world – no wrist was going to stop me that day and Rocky Balboa was right, sometimes it is about how hard one can get hit and stand up and dust yourself off and still achieve your goals.
I’ve done really cool things since but that’s a top of the totem pole.