Leander Paes, who is ranked seventh, is the only Indian player, male or female, in the top-10 of the doubles rankings. The ranking basically means that he gets direct entry into the Olympics with the option of choosing his partner.
But here’s the problem: nobody really wants to play with him.
The next two highest ranked players Rohan Bopanna, ranked 12th, and Mahesh Bhupathi, 14, don’t want to play with him — they have said it in as many words. News is just breaking that Bhupathi and Paes have been selected as the team that will represent India at the Olympics but one wonders how well they will do with their current frame of mind.
Paes and Bhupathi are a strong pair. They have played together for years. They are still ranked high in the doubles rankings. But there’s more to a team than just high rankings. An important component of any such partnership is friendship. Paes-Bhupathi fail in that respect. Will they be able to inspire each other to greatness?
If you speak to officials or former tennis players, they will tell you in no uncertain terms that Leander Paes is selfish. They will tell you that with Paes — the arguments begin with him and end with him; no one else has a chance to participate. They will also tell you that for a long time AITA president Anil Khanna gave him the power to do as he pleased with the Davis Cup team — he could decide the players, the playing order and he ruled with an iron fist.
Now all this was fine as long as Mahesh Bhupathi, the other power centre in Indian tennis, was with him. He not only had the backing, he had the support of the players. But a dictatorship can only last that long.
Paes along with Bhupathi would make for a formidable team. Indeed, it would certainly be more formidable than the Bhupathi-Bopanna combine because Paes has the skills to complement Bhupathi perfectly. The big serve with the quick hands at the net.
But doubles is all about two players moving in a perfectly synchronised manner; it’s all about two players being able to read each others minds and intentions; it’s about moving left when your partner goes right. Will Paes be able to do that? Will Bhupathi allow Paes to do that?
Less than a year back, Paes and Bhupathi were playing together. Now, they don’t see eye to eye. It’s hard to imagine that relations between them deteriorated so quickly once again. The entire point of them getting back together was that they realised that ‘together’ they were special. On their own, they are just not as good.
Of course, this is one side of the coin. The ‘other’ group will tell you that the Bhupathi camp has just become too powerful and in their own way, they have decided to rebel.
Bhupathi’s advantage, they say, is that he is South Indian. Rohan Bopanna comes from the same part of India and they share a lot in common. Sania Mirza was signed up by Globosport, the management company that Bhupathi runs, when she was just 15. And Krishna Bhupathi, Mahesh’s dad, has spent time with many of the juniors in their early days and that’s a hard bond to break. Also, Bhupathi has gone out of his way and helped many juniors get sponsors – he also has his own academy.
Even youngsters like Yuki Bhambri, Sanam Singh or Vishnu Vardhan like to keep their distance from Paes. They aren’t directly part of the problem but they want to stay as far away from it as possible.
At one level, we can go ahead and criticise the All India Tennis Association (AITA) and say that they should have put their foot down. But the truth is that Paes and Bhupathi are both powerful figures in the tennis firmament. The AITA was waiting, as they have so often done, for the situation to resolve itself. Their misfortune is that it didn’t. And now, their hand was forced. Yes, this will have repercussions.
Paes’ alleged high-handedness hasn’t helped his cause but honestly, isn’t the Olympics about bigger things? Isn’t it the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”?
So why is that Leander and Bhupathi seem to be getting slower, lower and weaker?