I pride myself on being a very professional and even-tempered guy. I have never washed my dirty laundry in the press or in public.
But clearly, after the past 10 days in Doha, emotions have reached a level where if things are left unsaid, most questions will remain unanswered. It is no secret that Leander Paes and I share a very strained relationship and it has been like that for several years now.
I have never commented on it to the press even after several provocations from his side. I have tremendous respect for him and all that he has achieved, with and without me. And I feel it would be demeaning to pass judgment.
However, seeing all that has happened in the past 10 days, Leander obviously does not feel the same way. It all started a few months ago when I decided not to play at the Asian Games or represent India any more. I was accused of throwing a tantrum, but it was precisely the kind of situation that has emerged, that I had been eager to avoid. I was coaxed into playing by the powers above, and I will never say no to my country when it needs me.
From the minute I landed in Doha, I realised something was amiss. On the first day itself Leander felt he did not need to practise with me and instead practised with the girls while I hit some balls with Mustafa Ghouse. The next day we had a disaster of a match against Taipei. I admit that I played a terrible match.
However, my partner was not far behind. Coming out with a loss is a huge disappointment for the team but after being in the business for 15 years we all know these things happen sometimes. But our coach Nandan Bal, instead of pulling us out to the practise court and fixing what went wrong, decided to shoot his mouth off to the press, questioning my commitment to the country, accusing me of playing dirty in a column he writes in Pune, and saying I should never have gone on court with a sore back. No prizes for guessing which camp he is in.
It hurt a lot when my commitment and desire to win were questioned. I decided to play the Games only to win a medal for the country. Why would I want to do otherwise? I could not understand for the life of me why both captain and coach did not sit down in the team meeting and address issues. Instead I had to find out the next morning when every newspaper in the country was calling me to verify what Nandan was saying. This, to my way of thinking, not only affects the morale of the team but is also unethical.
It showed later since the entire tennis contingent could sense the tension in the apartment we shared and not much was being said.
The days following the loss were a nightmare. My captain now believed that I just was not good enough, or fit enough, for him to step on court with me. From then on, every effort was made to get me out of there. They asked me to play a practice match to prove my fitness on the morning of December 6 against Rohan Bopanna and Mustafa. After we won that, the captain just flatly told me he did not think I was good enough to win the gold the way I was playing and that he would rather play with Rohan.
Being the captain, it is his decision whom he nominates but I was hurt when I was told that my past experience and achievements meant nothing. What hurt more was that it was coming from a guy who has been on the same side of the net from my first Davis Cup match and has seen all the sacrifices I have made not only for the country but also for him.
Leander was not willing to listen to anything I had to say and refused to believe me when I told him that I was fit to play. At this point I was beyond upset and had left the decision to the team management including our Federation head Anil Khanna.
Anil, who was probably in the toughest spot of them all since he was the first to call me to convince me to go to Doha, ended up nominating us against the captain's wishes. My only duty was to represent my country and it was sad that people's egos were coming in the way of letting them field the best team.
Emotionally, these few days were probably the lowest point in my career. I tried to hide it from the team but I think those who knew me sensed it. I called my mum and asked her to pray extra hard for me. The whole team (except Leander and Nandan) rallied around me. They knew this whole charade was a personal vendetta and not a logical scenario. Rohan went up to Leander and said he would rather play with Mustafa because he too believed that Leander and I had the best chance to win gold.
I guess the rest is history since we have brought home the gold. Anyone who witnessed the final will easily say it was one of the most exciting matches of our doubles career. Winning the gold for India in front of 6,000 screaming India fans and coming back from seven matchpoints down are matches kids dream about playing for the country.
I would love to play for India till I am 50 but unfortunately the strained relationship of the two senior members is not healthy for the rest. There were times when we used to look forward to playing Davis Cup but the past few years have been tough on the boys. They try and be as diplomatic as possible and this time in Doha the boys joked they will write a book on us and get rich. But I have decided to take a back seat and let them go ahead and hopefully get India back where we belong, in the World Group.
We have had a great career together and have hit another high this week with another gold medal. I am definitely not as flamboyant as Leander is with the media but am as passionate about playing for India. The million-dollar question is the Olympics in 2008. Leander tells the media that he would love to play with me at the Olympics; five minutes later he mentions to an acquaintance that my career will be over in six months.
I will continue to deal with all this behind the scenes. For now, the way things stand, I think my dream of winning an Olympic Gold will continue to remain a dream.