Let’s not pretend. There are no winners in the AITA dispute to this point. India’s 4-1 thrashing at the hands of South Korea should have embarrassed everyone from AITA president Anil Khurana to the striking players led by Mahesh Bhupathi and Somdev Devvarman.
India has a proud history in the Davis Cup for a country not particularly known for its tennis, having finished runner-up three times (1966, 1974, 1987). The players have also been inspired to produce some of their best ever performances in the tournament. Who can forget Ramesh Krishnan wining both his singles matches in the 1987 semi-final against Australia, including outplaying Wally Masur in straight sets in the decisive fifth rubber?
Leander Paes has been a different player when he plays for his country. Wearing India’s colours has always lifted him above the ordinary. Ranked no 197 in 1993, he lost a Wimbledon qualifier to no 238 Fernon Wibierin. Three weeks later he hammered no 25 Arnaud Boetsch on clay in straight sets, and beat Henri Leconte for good measure too.
In 1994, ranked No 143, he lost to No 208 Louis Gloria in a Challenger event. Four weeks later, South Africa’s World No 13 Wayne Ferreira did not know what hit him as Paes routed him in straight sets.
His biggest win came in 1995, when ranked 130, he outlasted world no 7 Goran Ivanisevic in a controversial five-setter on grass. Ivanisevic’s best surface.
Now that legacy is being tarnished. Instead of Paes at his giant-killing best, we have VM Ranjeet saying he had played his best after being thrashed 6-0, 6-1, 6-0 in the opening rubber to unranked Min Hyeok Cho. This is not to disparage Ranjeet, who no doubt did his best, but to highlight the gulf between then and now.
The coach, SP Misra, blamed the slowness of the courts. Considering the tie was played in New Delhi, and India had the choice of surface, this is a strange excuse (and reminiscent of Dhoni blaming the pitches for India’s loss to England) and just makes the whole incident even more of a farce.
Following the defeat, the AITA has formed a three-member panel - consisting of former Davis Cup captain Naresh Kumar, former Supreme Court judge Deepak Verma and retired bureaucrat MC Gupta - to sit down with the striking players. Unfortunately, the AITA’s executive committee has also said the decisions of the panel will not be binding on it, thereby reducing the whole process to a meaningless exercise.
What the association has to realise is that they need the players more than the players need them. In today’s age, the top Indian players can make a decent living without relying on the association or the government for funding. The association, on the other hand, cannot do without the country’s top players or there will only be more debacles like the one against South Korea. This result made it painfully clear that there is no second-rung of players that can compete even outside the World Group (that is a lament for another time).
The players too have to realise that this is not just about their demands, however reasonable they might be. Their actions have consequences that affect India’s status in the world of tennis. At the same time, they cannot be blamed if AITA does not negotiate in good faith.
The association needs to make the neutral panel’s decisions binding on both parties. That is the only way for both sides to be sure that they are getting a fair hearing and to speak freely. Right now, there is still too much distrust. AITA chief executive Hironmoy Chatterjee told the Hindustan Times that “This policy of blackmailing has been going on for too long. The availability came with pre-conditions and we do not appreciate that”.
If that is how the AITA see the players’ demands, then how can they possibly agree to any of them? What they need to understand is that this dispute is not about what they do or do not appreciate. This is about the present and future of Indian tennis. If they don’t get it right fast, they risk doing lasting damage to the sport in the country. After all, which player worth his salt will want to play for an organization that does not respect his views?