By Veturi Srivatsa
Once the All India Tennis Association (AITA) decided that it will not deny Leander Paes his record seventh Olympic Games, they had to go with the mixed doubles pairing of Rohan Bopan
and Sania Mirza to make all the three players happy.
AITA can now breathe easy, having experienced how messy things can get four years ago when they could not get Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi to play the menâ’s doubles at the London Games.
Long before the selectors flew into Delhi for the meeting, the decision was already made and it was presented to them as a fait accompli for their ratification, not for any tinkering.
Thatâ’s precisely the reason Paes stressed more than once before the selectors met that he had full faith in AITA President Anil khan, who is not a selector.
Poor chief selector S.P. Misra. He sat next to Khan at the media briefing without having to say how the pairings were arrived at. Khan hogged it all, using up as much air time as he could, talking about the rising standards of Indian tennis, mentioning the mes of all players he could remember.
He kept saying what a great player Paes is and what his contribution to Indian tennis is, even as he lauded Bopan for earning for the country the menâ’s doubles entry by finishing among the top 10, thus making it clear what the Bengulurean did was for the country – not for himself.
The Intertiol Tennis Federation (ITF) rule has a rider, the doubles players who qualified for Rio on their own steam could choose their partners but the tiol federation had to approve it. So, both Sania and Bopan picked their partners and informed AITA in writing and wanted it to be ratified.
Needless to mention, given a choice, both Bopan and Sania would rather not partner Paes and the reasons are public knowledge – the lack of chemistry. It is not only with these two and Mahesh Bhupathi, with whom he has had a running battle; Paes is not exactly liked by the younger lot too.
To say Paes is selfish and self-centred is uncharitable. Yes, in the last few years, he is expending all his energies to stay afloat on the circuit with his body not co-operating with his spirit and for good measure he keeps reminding tennis fans what an honour it is for him to play for the Indian flag. Did some other icon say it every now and then?
What did the selectors (Khan?) do to sort the issue out without seriously hurting anyone? They were firm not to allow the situation to get out of hand like they did before the 2012 London Games.
It was no secret that both Paes and Bopan wanted to pair up with Sania and both said that was their best chance to win an Olympic medal. To achieve what he exactly set out, Bopan put a spanner in the works by telling AITA that he would like to partner Saketh Myneni, ranked 125th in doubles a month before reaching his best ranking of 114, though he had just started playing after recovering from a shoulder injury.
It was kid stuf, frankly. Bopan knew AITA had no option if they want Paes to play with him, though it was keen that Paes partnered Sania to have the best shot at a medal, the elder statesman of Indian tennis having won his 10th mixed doubles Grand Slam title at Rolland Garros and in the process completing a career Grand Slam. The authorities were caught in a bind and had to given in to Bopan and Sania.
To pacify all, AITA, which in the past refused to add a sixth player to the Davis Cup squad, picked a seven-member team to play South Korea in Chandigarh next month to allow Paes to join at his own request. That means he will play doubles with Bopan.
In the last year or so, AITA exempted Paes from playing in the zol ties and he himself was not keen because he was on pursuit to collect points to improve his fast crashing doubles ranking.
For ATA, everything revolves around Paes and Khan thinks if there is any residual acrimony after the selection, Chandigarh is the right place to bring about a working relationship between the two stalwarts.
Will Paes really go to Chandigarh to play? Some say keep your fingers crossed.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior jourlist and the views expressed are persol. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)