At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Leander Paes became the first Indian to win an individual Olympic medal since wrestler K.D. Jadhav in 1952. His achievement proved a vital breakthrough, as his compatriots have won individual medals in each subsequent Olympics.
Although he plays a quintessentially "individual" sport, Paes has always shone in team environments. In the Davis Cup, he stunned France's Arnaud Boetsch (then ranked 16th in the world) in 1993 on clay (traditionally France's favourite surface and India's worst). That, and his four-set victory over 1988 French Open finalist Henri Leconte, took India to the World Group semi-final that year.
In another 1995 Davis Cup encounter, Paes beat Goran Ivanisevic (then ranked 3rd in the world) in an epic five-setter on grass (clearly Ivanisevic's favourite surface, on which his serve was almost unreturnable, enabling him to make the Wimbledon singles final in 1992, '94 and '98 before he finally won the singles title in 2001). And although he increasingly concentrated in doubles on the pro tour after 1996, Paes had excellent Davis Cup singles victories over top-20 ranked singles players such as Wayne Ferreira (1994), Jan Siemerink (1995) and Jiri Novak (1997).
Although Paes won the Wimbledon junior singles title in 1990 and the US Open junior title in 1991, his style of chip-and- charge play (and spectacular volleying) was more suited to the old grass courts that existed before the 1990s. With the balls becoming heavier and courts deliberately slowed down to favour the clay-courters, he achieved only modest success on the pro singles tour, reaching a career-high ranking of 73 in 1998.
He won one ATP tour singles title - in 1998 at Newport (Rhode Island), the only US tournament still played on grass. But he has one very rare distinction as a singles player: He is one of the few players to have beaten both Pete Sampras and Roger Federer; since those victories came in the only singles match he ever played against each of them, Paes will always hold a 1-0 career singles record against the two greatest players of his era!
He beat Sampras 6-3, 6-4 in the second round of a tournament in New Haven in 1998 and beat Federer (then 19 years old) in the qualifying round of the Indian Wells (California) Masters in March 2000, winning 5-7, 6-1, 6-4. His "big match" temperament also enabled him to beat former Slam champions Gustavo Kuerten and Pat Cash in ATP singles play.
Paes, 38, also continues to play both singles and doubles in World Team Tennis (WTT) for the Washington Kastles (along with the Williams sisters). The Kastles won the WTT title in 2009 and 2011 (becoming the first team to finish undefeated all season), with Paes being declared the most valuable player in both winning seasons.
At the 1996 Olympics, Paes needed a wild card to get into the singles draw. But he shocked the 3rd-seeded Thomas Enqvist (Sweden), then ranked 9th in the world, 7-5, 7-6 in the third round. He ran into top-seeded Andre Agassi in the semi-final and, with deft net play and drop shots, stayed close to lose 6-7, 5-7. Then, despite nursing a fever, he beat Brazil's Fernando Meligeni in three sets to win the bronze medal.
Paes' quick hands, lightning reflexes at the net and extraordinary volleying ability make him a superb doubles player. His potential was first evident when he made the semi-final of the US Open doubles in 1993 (with Canada's Sebastien Lareau). By 1996, he began partnering his compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi and, in 1997, the pair won titles in Singapore, both on the Challenger tour (below the ATP level) in January and on the full ATP tour (Heineken Open) in October.
The pair reached the pinnacle of the game in 1999, when they reached the doubles final in all four Slams, winning the French Open and Wimbledon titles. At Wimbledon, Paes won a dual crown, taking the mixed doubles title (with Lisa Raymond) as well. Paes-Bhupathi retained the French Open doubles title in 2000, but sadly went their separate ways by the end of the year.
With other partners, Paes won a further five Slam men's doubles titles (for a career total of seven), and completed the coveted career Grand Slam (winning each of the four major doubles titles) when he and Stepanek stunned the Bryan brothers at this year's Australian Open final. He has won six mixed doubles Slam titles (two in a celebrated partnership with Martina Navratilova in 2003), and needs only the French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles too.
During his extraordinary 20-year tennis career, Paes has been an ornament to the game. His commitment to fitness, exceptional nerves and lightning reflexes at the net have routinely lifted mediocre partners into stratospheric performances - especially so when playing in India's colours.