Serve & Volley
Some years ago while chatting with Ramanathan Krishnan, I was complaining about the doings of the All India Tennis Association (AITA). “Just forget it, Naresh, the players vs association is a worldwide phenomenon, and the players, seldom if ever win,” said Krishnan.
Last summer, events in Indian tennis plumbed the depths of the sporting world. Cloak and dagger intrigue fanned by the bellows of a hyperactive media took the disputes, believe it or not, to the cabinet ministerial levels of the world’s largest democracy. The winds of change were swept aside by manoeuvres, which sacrificed discipline at the altar of expediency.
With give and take the differences were papered over in an effort to keep things going, but the embers of the disputes were never put out.
For the forthcoming Indo-South Korea Davis Cup tie in the Asia / Oceania Zone Group I, in New Delhi, starting today, our best player Somdev Dev Varman, along with a group of 11 players, have put forward a list of demands stating that they would be “unavailable for Davis Cup selection unless the AITA is willing to consider and engage to our very legitimate suggestions in relation to the team”.
The threat of refusing to play for the country and the other demands incensed the AITA. On two previous occasions, in the Olympic selections last summer, and in a Davis Cup match against South Korea a couple of years ago in Delhi, the rebels led by Bhupathi and Bopanna threatened to withdraw from the tie unless their demands were met.
The AITA was forced to concede to their demands. Paes, the most experienced and perhaps India’s greatest Davis Cup player, at the insistence of Bhupathi and Bopanna was humiliated and removed from the captain’s chair in the Davis Cup tie.
This was followed by the Olympic selection fiasco last summer when again Bopanna and Bhupathi refused to play with Paes, thumbing their nose at the AITA selection committee. Finally, in September 2012, the AITA banned Bopanna and Bhupathi from playing for India for two years. They went to court and the ban has been stayed.
Somdev, for whom I have the highest respect and admiration, had earlier very wisely kept out of tennis politics. Fed up with the goings on, he possibly prodded by all the Davis Cup hopefuls got carried away and issued an ultimatum to the AITA.
Paes was kept out by the group. The rebels were certain that the AITA would not be able to field a Davis Cup team of acceptable standards. Failing to break the unity of the rebels, the AITA made an effort to bring back Prakash Amritraj.
The request was turned down. Left with no other alternative, the AITA dug their heels in, dredged the lower rankings and promptly nominated a team led by Leander Paes.
Out in the cold, the rebels seemed to relent and stated that the AITA should have negotiated and not rushed into nominating the team without even waiting for the last date for nomination.
The amateurish attack led by Somdev with the best of intentions backfired. While absence from the team will not affect Somdev, Bhupathi and Bopanna, the innocent youngsters will be as vulnerable as “the babes in the wood”.
Sponsorships, endorsements, government grants and support from the AITA will dry up and may seriously affect their careers. The AITA-rebel players’ relationship for some time now precariously balanced on a cliff’s edge has fallen into the abyss.
Ego, power and money have trumped old values and forced India to field an enthusiastic greenhorn team to do battle for our country in the most testing of all tennis battlefields — the Davis Cup.
Optimistically, there could be a miracle if we find another Paes in their ranks — I wouldn’t bet on it. Players need strong representation to voice their suggestions and problems in the key AITA committees while the AITA badly needs top quality, highly paid, full-time professionals to secure sponsorships.
February 1 will be a black day for Indian tennis. A day when the belligerence of the players and the inept and weak-kneed handling by the AITA took Indian tennis to its nadir.