Indian tennis operates under an Omerta that refuses to come to pass. The players are unified in their continued silence about their discomfiture with Leander Paes, but the fault lines open up whenever there is a question of national representation.
We are back for another run of this quintessential Indian soap opera, as the players start jostling ahead of the Rio Olympics. Rohan Bopanna created a flutter on Friday, when it was reported that he had asked the All India Tennis Association (AITA) to draft in Saketh Myneni to play doubles with him. Paes stands isolated again, with no partner to stand with him for a seventh Olympic foray of his illustrious career.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) rules allow any player ranked inside the top 10 of the ATP Doubles Ranking to nominate a player of his choice to partner for the games. They provide direct acceptance to 24 doubles players and 12 in the mixed doubles.
The ITF page offering guidelines also adds, “To be eligible to compete in the Olympic Tennis Event at Rio 2016, all athletes must be in good standing with their National Association and the International Tennis Federation.” It is an interesting additional requirement that allows the national body, AITA in our case, the power to negotiate around the will of a player.
The doubles draw consists of 32 teams and there shall 16 teams in the mixed doubles, with a maximum of two per nation. The ITF stipulates that any player ranked 10 or better as on 6 June, 2016 shall gain direct acceptance, “provided that they and their partner have been nominated as a doubles team by their respective NOC/National Association.”
While the selection committee meets on Saturday to finalise the nominations for Rio, Bopanna has set the stage for drama by reportedly asking AITA to select Myneni to partner him in Rio. Sania Mirza has also sent in her preference to the AITA, reported to be Bopanna.
Meanwhile, Leander Paes has been crowing from rooftops about his desire to be in Rio as well as stating categorically that Bopanna – Paes is the best combination for India. Paes had gone to the press with his opinion in the aftermath of his triumphant mixed doubles run at the French Open. He also spoke openly about his Olympic dreams while on stage to receive the CNN-News18 Special Jury award on Friday.
But the player community is far from enthusiastic to fuel Paes’ dreams. While his well-documented fall out with Mahesh Bhupathi laid the seeds of deep distrust, his stint as captain of the Indian Davis Cup team deepened the crisis for Paes.
Even in 2012, Paes was forced to play with lowly ranked Vishnu Vardhan while Bopanna and Bhupathi partnered as a team. His consolation in London was that Mirza was forced to partner him in the mixed doubles event. With the build-up turning into a bitter battle, it was no surprise to see all of them return empty-handed.
It is a pity that India isn’t able to fight for an Olympic medal in doubles, given the wealth of talent at its disposal. But doubles is a symphony that needs co-ordination and team work — aspects clearly absent among the leading players of our time, irrespective of where the blame might rest.
The rank and file of Indian tennis have ganged up against Paes whilst the administrators takes a more empathetic view toward the veteran. The quadrennial battle, a dirty laundry exercise in full public view, is a circus that Indian tennis can ill afford.
With the Olympics less than two months away, the AITA once again has the unenvious task of cobbling together a team while trying to balance the desires of Mirza and Bopanna with the dreams of Paes.
So what really are the options?
Bopanna and Mirza can put their foot down demanding that the AITA listen to them as they are the two highest-ranked Indian players in the world. If they have their way, Bopanna as reported will play with Myneni in the men’s doubles event while Mirza will chose either PrarthanaThombare or Ankita Raina to partner her in the doubles.
Both of them wish to team together in the mixed doubles. But that will mean AITA having to look for a partner for Paes, essentially killing any hopes of a medal for the veteran. AITA can nominate up to six players to the team.
On the other hand, Bopanna might be playing a strategic gamble in naming Myneni as a doubles partner. As he is aware of AITA’s empathetic inclination toward Paes, the ploy might be to use it as a negotiating chip to secure a mixed doubles entry for Bopanna and Mirza.
In the interest of Indian tennis and for our country’s medal hopes, fans will hope that the AITA and the players can thrash out their differences and arrive at a composition that shall give us the best chance of returning a medal from tennis.
As things stand, Bopanna is ranked 10th while Paes has slipped to 46th in the world from 24th last season. Paes — turning 43 a week from now — may just have to bite the bullet and pay the price for his drop in doubles ranking. A good compromise might be for Paes and Bopanna to play the doubles event, while leaving the stage clear for Bopanna and Sania in the mixed.
We could have a clearer picture emerge this evening when we tune in to prime time news around dinner time on Saturday.
Updated Date: Jun 11, 2016 10:57:31 IST