Just hours after it was sealed, India’s Davis Cup win over Uzbekistan was limited to academic interest only. The spotlight had shifted to the soap opera, like it has for upwards of 20 seasons.
To put things in perspective, India’s top singles player Ramkumar Ramanathan, the star of the last two Davis Cup ties was 2 when Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi came together in 1996. The two, appealingly called the ‘Indian Express’, went through a honeymoon period which saw them reach the finals of all four Grand Slams and become the first Indian pair to win a Grand Slam doubles title in 1999. However, those glory days are often overshadowed by the eventual falling out and the long-running acrimony since then.
The love-hate relationship between the two witnessed another flashpoint; one that anybody could have seen coming for the ingredients were always there. For the 43-year-old Paes, opportunities to clinch that elusive 43rd win to become the most successful doubles player in Davis Cup history were going to run out when a far-sighted Bhupathi took the helm.
So when he was dropped from the playing squad for the weekend’s tie, Paes said it was humiliating after he had been called all the way from Mexico. Bhupathi asserted that a guaranteed spot was never on offer and that he had talked to Paes ahead of the team selection meeting. Cue the private WhatsApp conversation.
From leaked emails to private texts made public, the feud hasn’t changed its nature, just the medium. However, many believe the unfortunate situation has yet again stolen the spotlight from those more deserving — like debutants Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Sriram Balaji who notched up wins.
Vijay Amritraj summed it up best. “It’s like beating a dead horse,” said Amritraj — former world No. 16 and quarterfinalist at Wimbledon and US Open — at the sidelines of the Road to Wimbledon event on Monday. “There’s no point talking about something that is completely irrelevant to the future of Indian tennis.”
Elder brother Anand was more vocal in his disappointment. “It’s just tragic that it has cropped up again,” said Anand, the non-playing captain before Bhupathi. “There is fault on both sides. Mahesh should have made it categorically clear to Leander and the AITA. That way Leander could have had a choice to come here if he wanted to in the capacity of a spectator. At the same time, it was stupid on Leander’s part to come here and expect to get a spot in the team. He should have called Mahesh before coming here and asked him straight-forward whether he was going to play or not. Simple as that.”
When the Amritraj brothers talk about Davis Cup, you’d do well to listen. The two led India to Davis Cup finals in 1974 and 1987 — a feat Paes and Bhupathi, for all their fantastic performances over the years, cannot boast of.
The real heroes
Every win in Davis Cup is hard-earned, let alone such convincing ones. Hence, it was supposed to be the moment in sun for Ramanathan and more so Gunneswaran and Balaji. “The debuting boys deserve a lot more recognition that they are getting. It’s never easy to make your debut with so much going around you,” says Vishal Uppal, who partnered Paes in Davis Cup in 2000 and 2002. “This is what has always happened. At the end of this tie, people are talking about the same old saga, not India’s performance.”
AITA secretary general Hironmoy Chatterjee believes “it is up to the idols to protect their image in front of the youngsters.” “How is the team going to look up to them when they see this bickering going around? What are they going to think?,” said Chatterjee, before adding, “We would have appreciated if Mahesh had told Leander before he arrived that he is not going to be in the final four. Paes deserves that respect after serving the country for 27 years. These 40-year-olds need to grow up.”
We have seen it play out before numerous Olympic Games and Davis Cup ties. In addition to the pressure of representing the country and facing other top players, India’s younger talent has time and again been saddled with the responsibility of choosing a “camp” and nurturing off-court loyalty with the seniors. Perhaps, it’s time for the stalwarts of Indian tennis to take a back seat and let the young pretenders get their share of headlines. After all, they are the ones who are to take the sport forward. Neither Paes nor Bhupathi is the future of Indian tennis.