The All India Tennis Association (AITA) found itself in a fix on Wednesday, after India was drawn to play an away Davis Cup zonal tie against Pakistan in mid-September. Security issues in Pakistan and India’s continuing tensions with the neighbour have meant that the tennis body will need to consult with the Indian government about its top tennis players crossing the border into Pakistan.
Hong Kong had refused to travel to Pakistan in 2017 citing security concerns, and were subsequently relegated to a lower tier and fined $5000 by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) as a result of the forfeiture. They also had to pay $10,971 to the Pakistan federation. With India needing to get past Pakistan to re-enter the World Group qualifiers, a trip across the border is inevitable, though AITA remains on tenterhooks about India’s participation in the tie. ”We will have to discuss this with the government first,” says AITA secretary general Hironmoy Chatterjee. “Only then will we be able to make a decision.”
Sources in the government claimed it is premature to take a call, especially with the general election coming up. “It’s too early. It depends on the prevailing situation then and the relationship between the two countries. It’ll be decided closer to the tie,” the source said.
In December, three Indian male tennis players had travelled to Pakistan for Futures events. The possibility of a neutral venue for the team event, however, looks bleak if ITF’s action against Hong Kong is considered a precedent, though India-Pakistan throws up a different poser. The last time an Indian team played a Davis Cup tie in Pakistan was in 1964 in Lahore. On paper, the Indians will be firm favourites to win the tie given the gulf in quality between the players. “It’s a good draw for us with the depth in our team,” said non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi. “We are looking forward to winning and getting back to the World Cup playoffs again.”
Why a neutral venue is unlikely for the contest between the neighbours
Indian sports fans accustomed to watching Pakistan play its ‘home’ cricket matches in UAE will wonder if a similar move can be considered in tennis. However, only extraordinary circumstances allow for such a shift. According to Davis Cup regulations: “A Nation with Choice of Ground may lose its choice at any time if the Davis Cup Committee considers that it is not possible or practicable for the opposing Nation to reach or play at the venue chosen for the Tie, due to (for example) an incident such as war, political unrest, terrorism or natural disaster.” This is the first time an Indian Davis Cup team has been drawn to play an away tie against Pakistan since 1973 . On that occasion, two years after the 1971 war, the tie was moved to Kuala Lumpur.
India has three players in the top 160 of the singles rankings and two top- 50 doubles players. Their opponents for the next tie, though, have world no. 67 doubles specialist Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi as their only ATP-ranked player. For Pakistan’s last tie, Qureshi spearheaded the squad along with veteran Aqeel Khan, Shahzad Khan, Heera Ashiq and Muzammil Murtaza.
Political tensions between the two countries have spilled over into sport, as no Pakistani athlete has been involved in any of the cash-rich Indian leagues in cricket, hockey and kabaddi over the last several years. In individual sports such as squash, tennis and badminton, players from both countries have travelled across the world to compete in lower-rung tournaments.
There have also been instances of the Pakistan hockey team making trips to India for important hockey tournaments, the most recent being the World Cup in December, and a sizable group of athletes did travel to Guwahati for the South Asian Games in 2016.
The Indian Davis Cup team fell back into the Group 1 of the Asia/Oceania zone after its loss to Italy in the World Group Qualifiers last weekend. In the tournament’s format for the zonal group stages, ties between countries are organised on a home-and-away basis with each country alternating as host. The last time the two countries were drawn to face each other was in 2006, when India hosted the tie at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai, winning a close encounter 3-2.
Since then though, security issues – especially after the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore – had led to Pakistan being stripped off hosting rights which saw no Davis Cup activity for 12 years, instead playing their home matches in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Turkey.
By 2017 though, the ITF deemed the country’s security arrangements sufficient enough to host Davis Cup ties and Pakistan has hosted Iran, Thailand, Korea and Uzbekistan thereafter. At stake for India – in the sixth consecutive home tie for Pakistan – is a seventh chance of making it back to the World Group in as many years. For that though, a trip to Pakistan stands in the way.