In discussions on India’s greatest athletes, there are three names certain to feature – Leander Paes, Sachin Tendulkar and Viswanathan Anand. These three are great because of what they have achieved in their respective sports and also because of their excellence, durability and drive. Of the three, however, the question must be asked - who is the greatest?
Tendulkar has achieved everything there is to achieve in cricket. He has 100 international tons - the only one to have done so. He is the owner of maximum runs in both Tests and ODIs. Cricket bible Wisden has rated him in the top three Test batsmen of all time.
Anand on the other hand has won five World Championships with the latest coming earlier this year. His achievements become all the more glorious considering the apathy towards the sport in the country.
The 39-year-old has entered the men's doubles final of the US Open and is going as strong as ever.
And then there is Paes. Even at the age of 39, he is going as strong as ever. As we write he has reached the men’s doubles final of the US Open with his Czech partner Radek Stapanek. In a long career, he has won 13 doubles grand slam titles with seven in men’s doubles and six in mixed doubles. His overall doubles titles tally is 50 and he is the only Indian to have done so.
Clearly, all three of them have been instrumental in putting India on the international sporting map. Indian sport hasn’t got as much press as it has in the last twenty years.
But Paes’ bronze medal heroics in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics may just tilt the scale in his favour. India participated with a 49-member contingent with no hopes of a medal at all. The last Olympic medal for the country had come in Moscow 1980 through the Indian hockey team - a gold. The next three Olympics in Los Angeles (US), Seoul (South Korea) and Barcelona (Spain) were thoroughly disappointing with no medal to show for. So it was no surprise why the Indian public didn’t expect anything of the contingent that went to Atlanta in 1996. Paes was not a big name by then.
However, he became one by the time the edition saw its completion as he won a bronze against all odds. The entire country jumped into grand celebrations when he defeated Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni to do the unthinkable.
Even though Sachin is the most beloved sportsperson India has ever had, one argument goes against him. It is that cricket is played by few countries, while tennis and chess are global sports and far more difficult to make a name at. Taking that into consideration, Tendulkar’s case weakens. Anand too loses out in the popularity stakes. So does that make Paes India’s greatest sportsperson?