Leander Paes has long been used to setting firsts for his country, having won more grand slam titles than any other Indian player in history. But this summer, he stands to set a mark that may never be beaten. Paes, who turned 39 last month, will become the first athlete from southern Asia – and the first tennis player from any nation – to compete in six straight Olympic Games when he joins the field for this month’s competition, which will be played at Wimbledon.
Having made his debut in Barcelona in 1992 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old, Paes won a bronze medal in singles in Atlanta 1996 and was part of the India team in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. Softly-spoken and mild-mannered off court, Paes can be brutal on it but it is his speed, agility and incredible reactions that have helped him to win 13 Grand Slam titles, including the career grand slam in both men’s doubles and mixed doubles. “It’ll be my sixth Olympics, which means I’m an old man,” he said. “I know I will be ready for it when the time comes. I love playing for my country. If you look at my record and the history books, I have always performed great for my country.”
The Olympics has always been a huge part of Paes life. His mother, Jennifer, the captain of the basketball team and his father, Vece, part of the hockey team, met at the Munich Games in 1972 and Paes loves to tell the story of how he was conceived during the Games. Having been the captain of India’s under-15 football team, Paes’ career could have been spent around the world’s great football grounds, rather than at the likes of Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Flushing Meadows and Melbourne Park. But it was the lure of the Olympics that drew Paes to tennis and he became a national hero when he won the bronze medal in singles in Atlanta in 1996, losing to Andre Agassi in the semifinals. In his book, Agassi described Paes as having “the Tour’s quickest hands”. “Behind all his junk, he flies to the net, covers so well that it seems to work.”
As a star of India’s Davis Cup team and their most decorated player, Paes’ place in history is already assured and he has ventured into the world of Bollywood, as well as starting an orphanage in Kolkata, his home city. The only thing missing from Paes’ resume is an Olympic doubles medal. In 2000, he and Mahesh Bhupathi lost in the second round; in 2004, they missed out on a bronze medal by losing to Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic and in 2008, they lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka. When it comes to the doubles, Paes is the only India player ranked inside the Top 10. He’ll play doubles with Vishnu Vardhan and could also play mixed doubles as he tries to complete what might just be a crowning achievement.
Whatever happens he will be ready. “A gold medal, in the doubles, will be phenomenal,” he said. “All I know is I have got to be ready to play my best.”