Indian tennis, or what passes for it, is in the grip of a weird ego crisis.
Its top two players, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, once inseparable friends, may now rush to abuse their respective rackets at the sight of each other. So the question of the two playing together in men’s doubles at the London Olympics does not even arise.
From what I understand of the convoluted ego tussles, it was Bhupathi who first refused to play if he was paired up with Paes for the Olympics men’s doubles by the All Indian Tennis Association (AITA). Bhupathi said he would play only with Rohan Bopana. That put the AITA in a quandary which it got out of by pairing the veteran Paes with a relative rookie, the 207-ranked Vishnu Vardhan.
Paes, who considers himself with some justification as first among Indian tennis equals, was stung by the choice and said he would not play with anyone ranked outside the world’s top 200. He had that choice in Somdev Devvarman, the world No 147 but Paes refused to partner with him because he is managed by a company owned by Bhupathi.
Then the AITA came up with what it thought was an ace by pairing Paes with Sania Mirza, India’s best women’s tennis player who is a two-time Grand Slam champion. The association thought Mirza was a substantial enough partner to pacify Paes. Not so fast, says Mirza .
In a letter to the AITA, a copy of which was released to the media, Mirza writes, "As an Indian woman belonging to the 21st century, what I find disillusioning is the humiliating manner in which I was put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis."
"While I feel honoured and privileged to have been chosen to partner Leander Paes, the manner and timing of the announcement wreaks of (she means reeks of) male chauvinism where a two-time Grand Slam champion, who has been India’s No.1 women’s tennis player for almost a decade in singles and doubles is offered in compensation to partner one of the feuding champions purely in order to lure him into accepting to play with a men’s player he does not wish to play with!" she writes.
"This kind of blatant humiliation of Indian womanhood needs to be condemned even if it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country,” Mirza says. That’s a strange construct—“even if it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country.” She probably means “particularly because it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country.”
Her characterization of the AITA announcement offering her as Paes’ mixed doubles partner as “male chauvinism” is spot on. I hold no brief for Mirza and have more often than not described as a “legend of crashing out in round two” of most singles championships, but in this particular affair she is absolutely right. It is nothing but willful disregard of her personal standing by the AITA which decided it was okay to offer her to Paes as a pacifier.
Paes insisted on a written assurance from the AITA that Sania would play only with him in the mixed doubles and not Bhupathi. Sania wants to play with Mahesh because he is her regular partner on the mixed doubles circuit and the two recently won the French Open mixed doubles.
To her credit, Mirza has still maintained a reasonable tone by saying,"For the sake of India, I am committed to play with Leander Paes or Mahesh Bhupathi or Rohan Bopanna or Somdev Devvarman or Vishnu Vardhan or any other person that my country feels I am good enough to partner. There should never ever be a question on this although if asked, I am entitled to have my preferences. I will do everything I possibly can to win a medal for India."
If you are scratching you heads by now about who is slamming whom and who wants to be paired with whom, I can hardly blame you. I have done my best to explain the massive ego clash on display in Indian tennis.
Incidentally, all the dramatis personae here are mostly known for “crashing out” or “bowing out” in round two of all major championships around the world. It is only in the mixed categories that they enjoy some standing in world tennis.