Why time does not heal in Indian tennis

Published: November 24, 2019 12:16:08 AM

Interestingly, the AITA decided to name a team of eight players, which included four who refused to play in Pakistan, and four who were happy to do so.

File photo of Indian doubles pair of Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan in action in February when the draw for India’s upcoming Davis Cup tie was madeFile photo of Indian doubles pair of Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan in action in February when the draw for India’s upcoming Davis Cup tie was made.

By  SHAHID JUDGE

‘Another year, another Davis Cup tie, another episode of uninspiring drama.’ You could almost hear yourself say that line with a sigh, perhaps a shake of the head or shrug of the shoulders. The characters in the plot are still the same, and so are the themes of the squabbling—the ‘I’d like to play for the country, but not with that person,’ or ‘why wasn’t I picked when I’ve always given my heart out when representing India.’ This time the cry was ‘I want to play, but not there.’

To be fair to our chief protagonists, or antagonists, whichever you prefer, this upcoming fixture in Kazakhstan had the makings of something more sinister than your regular Davis Cup ties.

When India drew Pakistan back in February, for a Group 1 Asia/Oceania tie that was to be played in Islamabad, it was clear that this was never going to be about tennis.

India versus Pakistan is about an inter-twined history that crosses the realm of sport, enters the drama of politics, the romance of battles past, and the thrill of bragging rights. Recently, an Indo-Pak competition on a cricket field was built-up by both sides with jingoistic advertisement campaigns that tickled the fancy and flirted with distaste.

This particular tie needed no promotion, the drama was already there. It’s taken nine months to come about since the draw was made in February. And when it comes to Indian tennis, time does not heal. It compounds the chaos. That’s exactly what’s happened.

For summary sake, the unfortunate Pulwama attacks first caused doubt, but the Davis Cup issue happily floated under the radar since public opinion was more cued into the debate on should the Indian cricket team even take to the field against Pakistan at the cricket World Cup. Tensions decreased between the two countries, so the All India Tennis Association (AITA) announced a strong team to go to Islamabad in July. That strong team decided they didn’t want to travel to Pakistan due to security concerns after the Kashmir issue arose in August. The AITA lobbied with the ITF (International Tennis Federation) and eventually got the tie shifted from the original September 14-15 dates to November 29-30. By October, the big players decided they will not travel to Pakistan at all, so the AITA wrote to the ITF asking for a neutral venue. In the meantime, the Indian federation drew up a list of players who were willing to go to Pakistan – which included 18-time Grand Slam champion Leander Paes. And, hours before the ITF made the final decision, the Indian body also decided to replace Mahesh Bhupathi with chairman of selection committee Rohit Rajpal as non-playing captain for this tie.

As luck would have it, the ITF said this tie would be shifted to a neutral venue.

Suffice it to say, the norm was broken many times, and crucially, it all went in favour of the Indians. They now get their wish of playing this tie at a neutral venue, in Nur Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. But when things are to be straight-forward, and in this case, fall in favour, trust Indian tennis to introduce selection chaos.

Granted, no player should be forced to travel to a venue he or she is not comfortable with. But eventually the AITA also needs to realise that it has to protect the interest of ‘all’ players, not just the ‘top ranked’ stars who aren’t willing to go. The national body eventually made an alternate list of players who were available for the tie should it happen in Pakistan. Leaked e-mails also suggested that the final squad would comprise only this set of players. But making two lists was anyway a recipe for disaster when the final venue decision was pending. And that’s what happened.

As soon as the ITF gave the word, the big players said they were available, and out went the chances of the lower ranked players from making it to the tie.

Interestingly, the AITA decided to name a team of eight players, which included four who refused to play in Pakistan, and four who were happy to do so.

Eventually, Rohan Bopanna, India’s highest ranked doubles player (38), who was a part of the original team, has pulled out of the tie due to a shoulder injury.

The AITA has said he will not be replaced, so there goes a vacant spot that would have been gratefully accepted a lower ranked player.

More alarming though has been the treatment of regular non-playing captain Bhupathi. True, the 12-time Grand Slam champion refused to travel to Pakistan, but replacing him for this tie just hours before the ITF made the final venue decision was uncanny. Remarkably, that was the only stand the AITA has stuck to when it came to the team for this tie.

On the other side of the border, the Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF) has taken a stand as well, in supporting the boycott of their two stalwarts Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Aqeel Khan from this tie, who are protesting the ITF’s decision to move it outside Pakistan. Instead the PTF will field two unknown 17-year-olds, Huzaifa Abdul Rehman and Shoiab Khan, who are ranked 446 and 1004 respectively in the junior rankings.

To be fair to the AITA, this was a tricky tie to handle, but then again, handling tennis is its sole responsibility. And the way the federation has allowed the egos of players to dominate proceedings over the past three decades, it has made it almost impossible now for the team selection of a Davis Cup tie, an Asian Games, an Olympic Games, to happen without chaos.

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