Davis Cup: ITF's tennis diplomacy is a tightrope walk as India-Pakistan stalemate continues

  • ITF, having shot down All India Tennis Association’s request for a delayed date or neutral venue, is adamant that the tie will go ahead as per schedule

  • India has seen ITF doing the tough balancing act, from both sides. The country has been part of five ‘walkovers’ for reasons other than tennis

  • For 12 years, from 2005, Pakistan was banned from hosting Davis Cup because of security concerns

For the past two weeks, the abrogation of Article 370, stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and its fallout has dominated the front pages of Indian newspapers. Some of the tremors of that weighty decision have been felt on the back pages as well: there is growing uncertainty over whether India will travel to Pakistan for the Davis Cup tie, scheduled for 14-15 September in Islamabad.

 Davis Cup: ITFs tennis diplomacy is a tightrope walk as India-Pakistan stalemate continues

Indian Davis Cup team during a practice session in New York ahead of the Canada tie. Image courtesy: Instagram @rohanbopanna0403

The International Tennis Federation (ITF), having shot down All India Tennis Association’s request for a delayed date or neutral venue, is adamant that the tie will go ahead as per schedule. Whether the ITF is aware of the ground realities or understands the simmering tension between the two neighbours or not, it is unlikely that they will budge from their position.

The Davis Cup (an ITF property) calls itself the ‘World Cup of Tennis’, but it is unlike any other world tournament we know of. Most World Championships, including the biggest of them all – the football World Cup, takes place at one venue, surrounded by a roar of adoring fans. Simply by virtue of its home-and-away format, the Davis Cup takes the game to the people, into the heart of the conflict. One hundred and 33 countries compete in the Davis Cup; each of those nations is governed by its own unique foreign policy, political leanings, diplomatic and historical friends and foes.

The ITF seems to work outside these spheres of influences, bringing its own form of tennis diplomacy.

Like their umpires who sit on high chairs, the governing body has to always appear unbiased and adhere to the rules. The ITF rule book states: “A Nation with Choice of Ground may lose its choice at any time if the Davis Cup Committee considers that it is not possible or practicable for the opposing Nation to reach or play at the venue chosen for the Tie, due to (for example) an incident such as war, political unrest, terrorism or natural disaster.”

The downgrading of diplomatic ties or undercurrent of anxiety does not qualify as reason enough – as is the case with India and Pakistan. As such, they stand firmly behind the hosts, once they have cleared them, and show faith in their own security experts. To diverge from this policy will mean setting an unwelcome precedent.

India has seen ITF doing the tough balancing act, from both sides. The country has been part of five ‘walkovers’ for reasons other than tennis.

The most high-profile of those was when India forfeited the Davis Cup final in 1974 in South Africa. The Indian team had beaten Japan, Australia and USSR to make it to the title round of the team competition. Of the three occasions that India has made it to the Cup finals – the other two being in 1966 (vs Australia) and in 1987 (vs Sweden)—this was their best chance at winning the tournament. But the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, said India would not travel to South Africa because of their Apartheid policy.

“Of course, it was the chance for us to have won,” Vijay Amritraj had told The Indian Express during an interaction. “As an athlete, I was disappointed. But in the cause of humanity, and as a human being, we absolutely did the right thing. We had to explain and say to them on certain terms that they were living in a system that was wrong. It's tough for a 20-year-old to understand at the time. But absolutely, what we did was brutally correct.”

Amritraj, the biggest name in Indian tennis by the 1980s, played a deal-maker in 1987 when India was drawn to play Israel in New Delhi. Even though the country was seen as Pro-Arab and against Israel’s treatment of Palestine, Amritraj convinced the Indian government to host the Davis Cup tie against Israel in July 1987.

The venue, the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association, was turned into a fortress for the weekend, and players had to enter the stadium, which had been swept by Israeli security experts, through metal detectors.

In an interview with Firstpost earlier this year, Anand Amritraj recalled the tie that India eventually won 4-0: “They cleared the stands. We played in front of zero people because of security reasons. We had never played Israel before, they had never come here. We played in DLTA on the grass with not a soul in the stands, it was eerie. They had sharpshooters everywhere. We just played our matches and left.”

A year later, with India drawn to play Israel again, in Israel, they refused to travel to Tel Aviv for the tie.

In 2009, Australia did not play in India due to security concerns. The players, led by Lleyton Hewitt, were spooked by the 26/11 attacks and felt unsafe to travel to Chennai, India in May when the general elections were to take place.

“It would be irresponsible of us to send our players into an area of such high risk. (The) Davis Cup is very important to us but some things are more important than tennis,” Tennis Australia president Geoff Pollard was quoted saying.

Coming back to India and Pakistan. The rivalry between the countries is not as celebrated in tennis as it is in team sports like cricket and hockey. But the Davis Cup has been witness to scrapes between India and Pakistan. The teams were drawn to play each other in 1971, in Pakistan, in May, but the diplomatic ties between the countries had completely broken down and Pakistan gave India a walkover. Two years later, with the nations still reeling from the 1971 War, they played at a neutral venue – Kuala Lumpur.

For 12 years, from 2005, Pakistan was banned from hosting Davis Cup because of security concerns. But ITF lifted the ban in 2017 and when Hong Kong refused to travel to Pakistan in April 2017, they slapped them with a fine and relegated them to a lower group. Having done their inspections for the Pakistan vs India tie in Islamabad for next month, the ITF believe the country is safe for tennis. And it is going to be difficult to convince them otherwise.

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2019 11:47:45 IST