Davis Cup: AITA's latest selection fiasco reinforces that Indian tennis, players are its last priority

Imagine you are walking on a rectangular strip in three dimensional space. You know that at the end of this strip, things will better. So you keep walking, keep trying to get there. But after what seems like an endless stretch of time, you realise that it’s not a rectangular strip at all, but a Mobius strip. You can keep walking forever, and still get nowhere.

This is how every well wisher of Indian tennis must be feeling right now. Yet another selection fiasco. Yet more off-field politics. Yet another last minute scramble and emotional atyachaar. Yet another Davis Cup where the team selection makes you wonder when this will all end. Only to realize it may never.

For the latest Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group 1 tie in Pune, the situation is no different. The decision of the organisers to hold the draw ceremony outdoors in the middle of the day — despite temperatures of around 32 degrees — just so that it could be held at the foot of a huge statue of Shivaji Maharaj, encapsulates the attitude of the All India Tennis Association (AITA). The players and spectators, the game’s biggest assets, are its last priority.

India non-playing captain Anand Amritraj (L) and players Leander Paes (2L), Ramkumar Ramanathan (C), Vishnu Vardhan and Yuki Bhambri (R) take part in the opening ceremony of the Davis Cup. AFP

India's non-playing captain and players take part in the opening ceremony of the Davis Cup. AFP

The current shambles began in the last Davis Cup tie against Spain in September 2016. Rohan Bopanna withdrew from the event due to injury, which meant that Saketh Myneni and Leander Paes played the doubles. The pair put on a respectable show against the Olympic Gold winning pair of Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez. They took the first set and were serving for the second, before the Spaniards wrestled back the momentum to win 3-1.

In Janurary this year, the team for this tie against New Zealand was announced at the start of the new Davis Cup season. Bopanna, available and ranked 28 in the doubles, was ignored. Instead, the AITA selectors picked Myneni as Paes’ doubles partner, apparently on the basis of their good showing against Spain. Multiple reasons were given for omitting Bopanna, despite him outranking both Paes (doubles No 64) and Myneni (singles No 205); these ranged from the side of the court he played to the preference for three singles players and just one doubles player. Reports even emerged that he was omitted due to the AITA being unhappy with a social media video of him dancing when he was supposed to be injured.

The drama resumed when Myneni failed to recover from a foot injury he sustained in the Chennai Open (ironically, Bopanna won that tournament partnering Jeevan Neduncheziyan). This happened a day before the draw ceremony on Thursday, leaving the AITA selectors with a literal foot-in-the-mouth moment. They were faced with the prospect of asking Yuki Bhambri to play all three days, but discarded that as he had just returned from injury. Ramkumar Ramanathan too had partnered Paes in a Challenger after the Spain tie, so he was another option as well. They also tried to contact Bopanna.

Anand Amritraj, non playing captain of the Davis Cup team, said Bopanna was contacted, not by one, but three different people. “But I was not one of those who spoke to him, so I don’t know what transpired," he added. Paes said he was the first to be willing to place the call to Bopanna, but was asked not to.

Bopanna in reply, admitted to being called by SP Mishra, the chairman of the selection committee. But he told The Indian Express that he had asked for an official confirmation from the AITA. “I told them that I wanted something official before I could make any decision. How can I respond to them with a confirmation if they haven’t given me anything official?”

He was critical of the original team selection, and also of the AITA’s late decision despite knowing about Myneni’s injury. “First they wanted one doubles player and three singles. Now the captain wants two doubles players. It doesn’t make sense. It was a selection disaster, and now they are paying the price for it and it’s completely their fault”, he added.

India has two other doubles players, who are incidentally ranked higher than Paes: Divij Sharan and Purav Raja. Both are currently playing together in France though. Eventually, Vishnu Vardhan, who was available thanks to a quirk of fate, joined the team as Myneni’s replacement. Vardhan was due to play a tournament in Kazakhstan, but did not travel as he made a mistake while applying for a visa. Vardhan (ranked 338 in singles) was called up despite reserve player Prajnesh Gunneshwaran having travelled and trained with the team over the past few days.

Harsha Bhogle, while writing on the shambles that West Indies cricket administration was in, said, “Mistrust might be the dominant theme of their cricket in recent years. It cannot produce strong teams.” But from the actions of the AITA and Bopanna over the past month, one thing is clear: for each other, both parties are about as trustworthy as a Salman Khan acquittal.

Where does this leave the younger players? In 2012, Paes was all but forced to partner Vardhan, then 24 years old, when Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupathi refused to pair up with him for the London Olympics. Now again, Vardhan has received the honour of playing for the country in less than happy circumstances. How long before our players chose the professional tour, where they can live by an objective measure like rankings, over representing their country when the Indian team is managed like your neighbourhood Sunday cricket team?

India have remained undefeated against New Zealand in five ties since the turn of the century. The last time they lost was back in 1978. While both Bhambri and Ramanathan are ranked higher than their opponents, the Kiwi doubles pair of Artem Sitak (56) and Michael Venus (36) are likely to give the veteran Paes and Vardhan a tough time. How unfortunate that once again, India cannot put forward their best doubles pair, due to off-field reasons.

This tie will be the last for non-playing captian Anand Amritraj, who will be replaced by Bhupathi going forward. One time partners Bhupathi and Paes have an acrimonious history, although Paes maintained he would be happy to play under his former partner. The timing of the reports that Paes has been asked to retire by the AITA after this tie are probably no coincidence. And yet Paes said on the sideline of this tie that he has no plans to retire. You can almost see the stage setting itself for the next conflict.

With a change in leadership — and possibly personnel — imminent in the near future, Indian tennis has a chance to cut the Mobius strip it is stuck in, and plan the season in a manner that befits the prestige of playing for the tricolor. Hopefully, the players will not be the ones who feel the brunt of the scissors, as they have for so many years.

Updated Date: Feb 03, 2017 14:34 PM

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