Chandigarh: There is one picture in Indian tennis history that has sort of become definitive of Leander Paes and his ability to consistently punch above his weight: the diminutive Indian standing on the podium at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics wearing that bronze medal.
Spain's silver-medallist Sergi Bruguera (left), gold medallist Andre Agassi (centre) and Leander Paes with the bronze medal during the men's singles event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Pic/Getty Images
It was one of the proudest moments for him and for Indian sports.
Sergi Bruguera may be playing in India for the first time, but having been seared into our memories through that iconic image, he's no stranger to Indians.
The soft-spoken Spaniard, a two-time French Open champion, is the man on the extreme left, the silver medalist at the Atlanta Games while the balding Andre Agassi stands in the centre with his gold.
"It is nostalgic looking at that picture," says Bruguera of Mumbai Tennis Masters, who faced off against Punjab Marshalls' Paes in the legends clash of their match in the Champions Tennis League here yesterday. Paes lost 5-6 (2-5). "It was a very emotional moment for both of us, to be standing there on the podium."
Paes, who stepped in as the team legend after Greg Rusedski pulled out with a foot injury ahead of match, played his first singles match since 2008 when he took on the extra burden for the Marshalls yesterday.
"It was great to play him again," said Paes. "To think that I would have played him in the final… its like karma coming back." Despite playing in the same era,
Bruguera and Paes have faced off on the pro tour in singles only twice. And they share the honours: the Spaniard won their first clash 6-3, 6-0 in Tokyo in 1995 while Paes took the second 6-1, 6-2 at the New Haven ATP tournament in 1998.
The 43-year-old Bruguera is only two years older to Paes but retired from the sport in 2002. Paes, eyeing his seventh Olympics in Rio in 2016, is going strong in doubles. Though Bruguera plays regularly on the ATP Champions Tour, his game seems to have lost most of its bite due to a shortened backswing.
"It is incredible to see Leander still play so well," said Bruguera. "He has been a top player for so long and even now he is one of the best serve and volley players around."