It’s so sad but it stays so true: Our tennis stamps awake the Indian sports fans’ comatose interest largely when it barks out controversy. Ask the lay people on the street and if they happen to recall the names of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, rest assured that the first thing that they remember will be one of the many public spats that the two have had in the press over the years.
That the two have 27 Grand Slam titles between them becomes a slighted footnote.
The Aircel Chennai Open offers the biggest press platform to our players. Invariably that has meant that it becomes the default tournament for sundry disenchantment to spill out. An open players’ revolt against the national association, players questioning others’ commitment to play for the country, or, as in the case of this edition, Paes saying how his claim to play both the mixed and men’s doubles events at the Rio Olympics is supreme on pure merit.
Talk of the town
Paes’ statement has let loose verbal pigeons amongst the fat cats that our tennis players are. I am sure the others are barely able to control themselves from gnashing out and chomping his statements — feathers, wind, substance and all. Paes wants to partner Rohan Bopanna for the men’s doubles and Sania Mirza in the mixed at Rio. That’s his ideal scenario.
On sheer consistency of performance at the highest level, Paes’ claim is unassailable. However, sport does not play out in the past. As of now, the plain fact of the matter is that Bopanna is the hottest men’s doubles player in the country.
He is ranked ninth in the world (Paes is 41) and finished the season with a finals showing in the year-end competition between the top-eight best doubles pairs of the world. He is so on top of his game that he is actually chilling at home in Bengaluru this week instead of playing at Chennai — he is saving himself for bigger things this year.
Not best of friends
Paes has said what he wants but this writer suspects that Mirza will go with Bopanna unless the Coorgi (or Kodava as it’s more correct to say nowadays, I am told) breaks a leg or manages a colossal dip of form. To start with, the two are better friends. While Paes commands the respect of Indian tennis players for his achievements, he is not the best of friends with most of them. Then, if Bopanna continues with his run of form, that massive serve will be a huge asset on the hardcourts in Brazil.
Paes, notwithstanding the warrior heart and incredible ability to churn victory from the depths of almost-defeat, is likely to lose out and he seems to have fired off his salvo and made his stand clear.
Who will tango in Rio?
While all these verbal volleys have been sallying about, none of our players have shown any major commitment towards gearing up for the Olympics. As of now, there is no news of Bopanna and Mirza pairing up on the tour for sure or of Bopanna and Paes playing together to fine-tune their chemistry in the run-up to the Olympics.
This time around, Mahesh Bhupathi is out of the equation — he is only playing the last few of his nine events that tennis rules (in his particular case) allow a player with a protected ranking to participate in. While he never got the credit he deserved for the last two Olympics, it had always been Bhupathi who showed willingness to put his Tour career on hold to prepare for the Games.
In 2008, Bhupathi was at his wits’ end as he felt that he and Paes needed to play more tournaments together to prepare for Beijing. In 2012, Bhupathi was painted the villain as he and Bopanna chose to partner and ignore Paes. But few applaud the fact that both committed a year of their professional career to ensure India had a possible medal-shot.
Meanwhile, watch this space. The latest soap opera in Indian tennis has just begun. Pilot episode done, stay prepared for the nth season of the Indian tennis Hate Files. One is sure it’ll be juicy.