The spirit of tennis has long straddled the conflicting worlds of nationalism and globalism. While the Davis Cup held a special place, many top players prioritized Grand Slams that brought individual glory and had global appeal. Tennis, in fact, was reintroduced as a medal-winning discipline at the Olympics only in 1988, after a gap of 64 years.
But for Indians, tennis has long been a source of national pride, riding on the exploits of the Krishnans (Ramanathan & Ramesh), Amritrajs (Anand and Vijay) and the rest. In this, Leander Paes’ singles bronze from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics ranks high. It was independent India’s second individual medal, ending a 44-year drought after KD Jadhav’s bronze (wrestling, Helsinki 1952).
Paes beat a top-10 player in Thomas Enqvist, ruptured tendons in the wrist in the semifinal loss to Andre Agassi and fought back from a set down against Fernando Meligeni of Brazil in the playoff to bag the historic medal.
But for that, India has had little success. There hasn’t been a singles match win since Paes’ effort and his famed partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi across four Olympics didn’t fetch a single medal. The closest was at Athens 2004, but the duo lost a marathon bronze medal playoff to Croatia’s Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic.
The nation’s best chance was at London 2012, when it had Paes, Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna in the top-20. But it will be best remembered for off-court bickering and a clash of egos.
Bopanna and Sania Mirza narrowly missed out at Rio 2016, losing the mixed-doubles semifinal against Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram in a match-tiebreak before being defeated in the bronze medal playoff by Czech Republic’s Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek.