A new chapter is taking shape in the thrilling saga of Indian tennis. The appointment of Mahesh Bhupathi as the non-playing captain of the Davis Cup team underscores the intent of All India Tennis Association (AITA) to turn the page on the sordid drama of the recent past. But then, what is Indian tennis without a dash of drama – the AITA has also offered a twist in the tale by deciding to dump Rohan Bopanna for the tie against New Zealand in February 2017.
In a series of decisions that were made to sound like accidents of fate, AITA offered explanations that seemed frivolous at best and ridiculous at worst. As inspired as the choice to have Mahesh lead the Indian team might prove to be, the AITA itself did not appear to be making the choice from any kind of strategic insight.
"Everybody should get a chance to be the captain,” explained Hiranmoy Chatterjee, on the selection of Mahesh and the underlying reasons for the choice. “No post stays with one person forever. I personally spoke to Bhupathi and asked if he was available - he said 'yes'. That was it.”
On Anand Amritraj remaining the captain for one more round, despite the AITA decision about Mahesh, “we wanted to give Amritraj a farewell tie," offered Hiranmoy, sounding nearly as convincing as the Pope might at an atheist conference.
National selector SP Misra sought to justify the omission of Bopanna, but was far from conclusive with his argument. "Picking Rohan blocks a place for a third singles player that we wanted to have in the squad. Also Leander (Paes) and Saketh (Myneni) were brilliant against Spain. But whenever Leander and Rohan have played together, they have not done well. Take the Czech Republic tie as an example,” asserted Misra.
One must wonder if this was done to appease Leander Paes, considering that he might have to sit out in the future when Mahesh takes charge of the team. After all Bopanna is ranked a good 31 spots above Leander at 28 in the world. Saketh Myneni, the proposed partner to Leander in February, is ranked 210.
The fact that Bopanna and Myneni are both ad court players was the only note of reason offered during AITA’s interaction with the media in New Delhi. Despite Saketh’s stated displeasure about playing with Leander in the past, the 29-year-old has proven his ability to set aside personal preferences for the sake of the team. He would be expected to do just that in the Asia/Oceania Group I tie a few weeks from now.
It appears that AITA has been driven more by the political equations that have defined Indian tennis over the past many years. Amritraj is rewarded with one final tie, despite the AITA accusing its captain of compromising discipline in the team.
“I discussed it with coach and captain and I said there can’t be a free-for-all. Journalists are going to the dressing room and girlfriends are going to the dressing room. I said it can’t happen that way,” Hiranmoy had said, earlier this month.
While discipline has clearly been an issue, Anand Amritraj deserves credit for building a strong sense of camaraderie among the team members. In that sense, there is no doubt that Amritraj will be sorely missed around the Indian dressing room. Victories in Korea in 2014 and New Zealand last year will be remembered as a fond reminder of Amritraj’s legacy from a three-year captaincy stint.
However, while Amritraj is disappointed at being shown the door, he will have enough time to gather his wits. The tie against New Zealand is six weeks away, allowing the captain time to prepare for one last hurrah with the Indian team.
Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan will most likely take the singles spots against New Zealand. Yuki was missing in action for much of 2016 due to a tennis elbow, slipping to 534th in the rankings. Ramkumar is ranked 227th in the world. India is ranked 19th in the Davis Cup standings, 14 spots above the visitors.
Indian tennis fans will hope that the team can coalesce into a strong unit under the leadership of Bhupathi. The acrimony that seemed to poison tennis in India has caused enormous damage to the sport already, perhaps even costing an Olympic medal. The intense squabbling in the lead up to the Olympics – both for London 2012 and Rio 2016 – is still fresh in people's minds.
Resolving conflict and driving aspirations will perhaps be the greatest challenges faced by Mahesh Bhupathi in the early days of his captaincy. There might not be too much time for the legendary doubles player, with his first match as non-playing captain scheduled for the first week of April.
We can only hope that Mahesh is able to instill discipline in the ranks. If that is accomplished, he can then focus his energies on the performance of the team and maximising the limited resources at his disposal.
Updated Date: Dec 23, 2016 11:08:56 IST