Davis Cup 2019: India vs Pakistan tie being shifted to a neutral venue is a win for AITA and their soft diplomacy

  • India and Pakistan were originally scheduled to play on 14-15 September in Islamabad on grass.

  • Following Kashmir's special status being revoked on 5 August, the situation between the countries worsened leading to postponement of the tie to November.

  • On 4 November, after three months of correspondences, ITF decided to move the tie, scheduled for 29-30 November, to a neutral venue.

All India Tennis Association (AITA) CEO Akhouri Bishwadeep arrived for a press conference in the capital on Thursday with a couple of folders in hand. Alongside him was chairman of the selection committee Rohit Rajpal. The latter had been appointed as the non-playing captain for India's Davis Cup tie against Pakistan. The decision by the executive committee kicked up a storm which effectively removed Mahesh Bhupathi from the role. Over the next hour, the duo sought to clear the air on yet another controversy between players and administration. They stated that Bhupathi was not being considered for the Pakistan tie despite it being moved to a neutral venue.

But away from the back-and-forth that happens prior to every Davis Cup tie, the decision by International Tennis Federation (ITF) to move the tie to a neutral venue — a resolution which has been appealed by the Pakistan Tennis Federation — is a win for AITA. In what has been revealed was a three month process of continuous exchanges over email and phone, AITA have finally been able to force the hand but it has brought about mixed feelings. On one end, both Bishwadeep and Rajpal were relieved to see the tie moved but were equally surprised — possibly at the timing of the announcement.

 Davis Cup 2019: India vs Pakistan tie being shifted to a neutral venue is a win for AITA and their soft diplomacy

No Indian Davis Cup team has travelled to Pakistan since 1964. AFP

"The final decision that came on the night of 4th November regarding change of venue was a result of three months of sustained and persistent efforts of the All India Tennis Association. It was a victory of soft diplomacy and quiet persistence of AITA," Bishwadeep said to the reporters.

"AITA has been working relentlessly behind the scenes to get a change of venue. However for three months there was never an intimation from ITF that it could agree to a change in venue. All security arrangements were shared with us as early as 14 August by the ITF. And ITF on the contrary had constantly been pushing the AITA to finalise the team and arrangements for the Pakistan visit."

"After 5 August [when Government of India revoked the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution], the situation became difficult and there were security concerns which were raised by players as well as AITA. The AITA submitted a detailed dossier in early August. AITA kept highlighting the developments and urged a change in venue or at least postpone the tie. Finally, on 22 August, the decision was taken to postpone the tie to November."

"While ensuring that we were not seen by the ITF to be going against their decision in any way, in the interest of diplomacy, we continued to monitor the situation and fed regular information to ITF on developments in the intervening weeks. In beginning October we asked them to take a decision latest by second week of October so we had adequate time to prepare and finish administrative formalities."

The dossier Bishwadeep referred to included links to news stories on India's Davis Cup team expressing their unwillingness to compete against Pakistan followed by situation in India and Pakistan after 5th of August. The discussion over the venue of the tie began back on 8 August, Firstpost can reveal, and included regular communication between the CEO Bishwadeep, secretary general Hironmoy Chatterjee and the ITF Davis Cup Committee. In one of the emails, sent on 14 August, Bhupathi had also written to ITF and expressed players' concerns over their security if the tie was indeed held in Islamabad as was originally planned. The communication between AITA and ITF is spread out over 10-plus individual emails excluding the subsequent threads and phone calls. The last piece of communication from either parties was on 31 October before the eventual communique arrived from the ITF on 4 November at 10.10 PM IST. By then, AITA had held their Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Chandigarh and selected Rajpal, former Davis Cupper, to lead the side as a non-playing representative.

India's Leander Paes returns a shot during the Davis Cup doubles tennis match against New Zealand's Artem Sitak and Michael Venus at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune on February 4, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PUNIT PARANJPE

Leander Paes had made himself available for selection even if the tie was to be played in Pakistan. AFP

In the three months of communication, AITA shared news stories of worsening relationship between the neighbours. These links included skirmishes at the border, martyrdom of soldiers in line of duty, downgrading of diplomatic ties, cutting trade and transport, expelling the Indian ambassador to name a few. The ITF, however, stuck to its stand of keeping the tie in Islamabad while clarifying the security arrangements were strong enough. These security details shared with AITA included their arrival in Pakistan, travel to hotel, hotel to the stadium and for the remainder of the tie. Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF), on their part, also tried to keep the tie at home with strong security arrangements and concessions such as making the tie an invite-only attendance. Where ITF said the security situation in Pakistan hadn't worsened since 5 August, AITA kept reiterating their stance on the contrary with regular correspondences from the office bearers.

Besides the continued chain of talks with the ITF, AITA also went about checking availability of players should the tie stay in Pakistan. India’s top three singles players Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Sumit Nagal and Ramkumar Ramanathan had all made themselves unavailable for the tie if it remained in Pakistan, alongside doubles specialists Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan. Also ruling himself out of contention was Bhupathi due to security reasons. In one email, sent on 28 September, Bhupathi had categorically stated none of the players were comfortable travelling to Pakistan and suggested pushing for the loser's spot instead. That suggestion, however, was ruled out on 15 October at an emergency meeting in New Delhi.

With key members of the squad making themselves unavailable, AITA went about approaching the others for their availability including Leander Paes. The 46-year-old readily agreed and sent in his passport information for the visa the subsequent day. Also sending in their passport information without much delay were Saketh Myneni, Manish Sureshkumar, Sidharth Rawat, Sriram Balaji, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan alongside team manager Sunder Iyer, coach Zeeshan Ali and physio Anand Kumar. Incidentally, Myneni had expressed his desire to travel with wife to Pakistan and sought clarification on security measures at a later stage.

Kolkata: India's non playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi during men's singles match between India and Italy at the Davis Cup 2019 qualifier at South Club in Kolkata, Saturday, February 2, 2019. (PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra) (PTI2_2_2019_000139B)

Mahesh Bhupathi has been removed as India's non-playing captain for the Pakistan tie. PTI

ITF had given PTF five days to select an alternate venue on 4 November which forces AITA to go back to the drawing board on 10 November at the earliest to select the "best team". Rajpal stated that players who had been selected originally will be given due consideration for making themselves available when their senior counterparts had not. “We have taken note that these guys [who made themselves available for Islamabad] have stood up for the country and we will honour them,” Rajpal said.

“We will not ignore them. The selection committee will again sit down depending on where the tie is played and on what surface. Our goal is to win this tie. Everybody who says he is available, will be considered,” he went on to clarify.

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Updated Date: Nov 08, 2019 15:56:48 IST