sports Castrol Activ 4T
August 24, 2000


Castrol Activ 4T

India banks on tennis for medal

Shailesh Soni

Jawaharlal Nehru once said of the Olympics that winning was not important, what mattered was to participate.

India's tennis stars appear to have taken that homily to heart -- down the years, they have participated, but until 1996 when Leander Paes won a bronze at Atlanta, there has been nothing to show for all the sweat and tears.

Interestingly, it is Leander who is India's flagbearer in more ways than one -- not only will he march with the national flag, at the head of the Indian contigent, on the opening day of the Games, but it is Leander, with Mahesh Bhupathi, who are one of our best hopes of bringing back a medal from the Games.

Tennis was a founding sport in the first modern Olympics in 1896, but was withdrawn from the Olympics in 1928 thanks to disputes over the definition of the term amateurism, as also of legitimate travelling and training time. The sport made a re-entry, as a demonstration sport, for the 1984 Los Angeles Games and became a medal game in 1988, in Seoul.

Vijay Amritraj India's participation began in Seoul, when Vijay Amritraj got a direct entry into the draw of 64 players. As it happened, Amritraj lost in the very first round, on hard court, to Henri Leconte of France in a tight three-setter.

Came Barcelona 1992, and two Indians took the court -- Ramesh Krishnan with a wildcard, and young star Leander Paes through the qualifiers.

Ramesh Krishnan Yet again -- this time on clay -- both Indians went out in the first round. Ramesh lost to Jim Courier of the United States, while Paes went down to Jaime Yzaga of Peru. The two teamed up for the doubles event, and reached the quarterfinals before bowing out.

Paes was back again, four years later in Atlanta, with a wildcard. It seemed a waste of a wildcard -- Paes was ranked number 149 in the world, he was yet to win a Tour title, and an early exit seemed on the cards.

But Paes had already shown a rare trait, for an Indian sportsman -- at the sight of the tricolour, his heart begins pumping double time, and he plays as though he had an adrenalin factory inside of him.

In Atlanta, it was back to hard court. In the first round, Paes knocked over Richey Reneberg of the USA. In the second round, it was Nicolas Pereira of Venezuela. Thomas Enqvist of Sweden tumbled in three, Renzo Furlan of Italy went under in the quarters, and in the semis, Paes fought brilliantly before bowing to eventual winner Andre Agassi.

In the playoff for bronze, Paes created history, bouncing back from a set down to defeat Fernando Meligeni of Brazil to give India its first individual Olympic medal in over two decades.

Paes has a wildcard in Sydney, for the singles event, and will team with Mahesh Bhupathi, making his Olympic debut, in the doubles.

Leander has been out of tennis action since the French Open this year due to a wrist injury, and thus finds himself around the same ATP rankings as he was at the last Olympics. However, between then and now, he has improved his singles game tremendously, winning his first singles ATP Tour title at Newport in 1998. He also racked up wins against some of the biggest names in tennis during this period, and presents a more realistic chance of making a blind-side run towards a repeat performance.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi But it is in the doubles where, after a spell of misunderstanding, the crack pair of Bhupathi and Paes teams up again, that India has reason to smile. Last year, the duo won two Grand Slams and were losing finalists in the other two -- a performance that rocketed them to the top of the world rankings. Since then, however, misunderstandings pushed the two apart, and the Olympics gives them a welcome platform to come together again.

And if they can recapture at least part of the form of last year, Paes and Bhupathi present India with its one realistic chance of Olympic honours.

India's performance down the years:

 Vijay Amritraj
 Olympics-Seoul       20-Sep-1988 - 01-Oct-1988       Hard(O)      Entry: DA
 R64            L            Henri Leconte (FRA)            6-4 4-6 4-6 6-3 3-6
 Ramesh Krishnan
 Olympics-Barcelona       28-Jul-1992 - 08-Aug-1992       Clay(O)      Entry: WC
 R64            L            Jim Courier (USA) (FRA)            2-6 6-4 1-6 4-6
 Leander Paes
 Olympics-Barcelona       28-Jul-1992 - 08-Aug-1992       Clay(O)      Entry: Q
 R64            L            Jaime Yzaga (PER) (FRA)            6-1 6-7 0-6 0-6
 Olympics-Atlanta       23-Jul-1996 - 03-Aug-1996       Hard(O)      Entry: WC
 R64            W            Richey Reneberg (USA)            6-7 7-6 1-0 RET
 R32            W            Nicolas Pereira (VEN)               6-2 6-3
 R16            W            Thomas Enqvist (SWE)            7-5 7-6
 QF             W             Renzo Furlan (ITA)                  6-1 7-5
 SF             L             Andre Agassi (USA)                  6-7 3-6
 Olympics-Bronze Medal       03-Aug-1996       Hard(O)
 F             W             Fernando Meligeni (BRA)         3-6 6-2 6-4

Stories relating to Tennis and Sydney Olympics:

The Dummies' Guide to Olympic Tennis
Just Do It! -- Rohit Brijnath on Paes and Bhupathi
Leander Paes is India's flagbearer
Paes-Bhupathi team return with a win
Team Williams to turn out in Sydney

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