Leander-Mahesh: A clash of constellations

During the past two weeks there have been suggestions from various quarters as to how unbecoming it was for the two giants of Indian sport — Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi — to repeatedly spar the way they do. It’s equally unbecoming for a country with a rich Davis Cup history to tolerate it forever.

It’s not for the first time that the present non-playing captain of the Indian Davis Cup team, Mahesh Bhupathi, and star player Leander Paes are not seeing eye to eye. The controversy that cropped up in Bengaluru during India’s Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan was yet another episode of bad vibes between the two.   -  AP

Win or lose, there is always time for a round of the long-running, never-ending Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi feud. It doesn’t matter that it’s the start of a fresh innings for an Indian Davis Cup captain. It doesn’t matter that there are impressionable novices in the team who can well do without the drama. 

There always seems to be this competitive zeal to try and touch newer lows. From calling into question the professionalism of a captain to releasing private messages exchanged without asking for consent, the sniping and the bickering have reached abysmal levels. 

The latest round started on the eve of the India-Oceania Group I Round Two tie against Uzbekistan in Bengaluru and continued well into the week after it ended. That India won the fixture 4-1 and earned a place in the World Group Play-offs for the fourth successive year was incidental. Paes was livid that he had to travel half-way across the globe from Mexico only to be told that he wouldn’t be in the final four. Bhupathi maintained all along that no one was guaranteed a place.

There are many things which don’t add up. Bhupathi, in early March, after picking the squad had relegated both Paes and Rohan Bopanna to the reserves for “not showing results.” In the conversation with Paes, which was released to the media, he said his doubles combination was undecided. “Logic would say Bops in quick conditions but I would like to decide last minute after seeing form and results over the next 3 to 4 weeks,” he said.

Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna in practice in Bengaluru. Ultimately, Paes was dropped from the doubles team, while Bopanna made the cut. Bopanna won the match too for India in the company of Sriram Balaji.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

 

In the subsequent weeks, Bopanna had first round exits at both Indian Wells and Miami at the same hard courts where Denis Istomin — who subsequently pulled out — was supposed to be practising and something that Bhupathi, in the lead-up to the tie, said was inadequate. 

Paes, on the other hand, won the Challenger in Leon and missed no opportunity to point out that it was at an altitude double that of Bengaluru.

Tennis played at a higher altitude often tends to be erratic as balls move faster and bounce higher. The state capital of Karnataka was chosen for this reason alone, to make life as difficult as possible for Istomin.

For Bhupathi this was not a sign of good form as he later said that Bopanna losing to Novak Djokovic (Indian Wells) and Nick Kyrgios (Miami) was no shame. Form is not the only criteria he then stressed. “There are five things and fitness was among them,” he said. Paes didn’t even get the fitness test done at the place where he wanted to, Bhupathi alleged. So Paes shouldn’t be the one talking about inconsistent criteria, he pointed out.

Through the week, there were also more than obvious hints that Paes not arriving on the Sunday before the tie harmed his selection chances. Bopanna even said that going forward, it is important to learn how helpful it is if the team is together a week before. But after having made it clear to Paes that he could even wait until a decision was made on his selection before arriving, it was nothing but a case of shifting the goalposts.

The World Group Play-off tie will be held on the Friday after the US Open ends. If Bopanna makes a run to the deep end of the Grand Slam tournament, it is questionable if he will arrive on the Sunday.

That said, for Paes to assure Bhupathi that he would come if picked in the six-man squad even without a guaranteed spot in the final team, and then complain that <FZ,3,0,13>a simple phone call would have been enough was not done. After having said that “Davis Cup comes first” his decision to leave the team with two-thirds of the tie still remaining, was unsavoury to say the least.

As Bhupathi said, “A six-man squad is to build the team. If you don’t make the team, it’s for so many different reasons. It’s not to be here till the team is announced and go.” It’s true that Paes had signed up to play the ATP 250 event in Houston the very next week. But it’s quite possible that he would have played there even in the event of him having turned out for India against Uzbekistan.

Mahesh Bhupathi speaks at the press conference, with the team in attendance, after India beat Uzbekistan 4-1. But, where is Paes? His early departure from the scene was not well received.   -  PTI

 

Amidst all the mud-slinging, if one takes a step back it’s tough not to see how delusional a sport tennis has become in India. It is the best tennis nation never to have won the Cup, a record which until recently belonged to Argentina, which had lost four finals before winning in 2016. India has reached the final thrice — in 1966, 1974 and 1987. But for almost two decades since then, the sport has seen scant improvement and has been dominated by the singular issue of a clash of egos between two individuals.

There are far more pressing problems to attend to. As much as Bhupathi would like to believe that he can chart a new course for the team and however sincere his attempts, it’s a truism that a Davis Cup captain is only as good as his team. Without a single top-100 player in its ranks, competing with the world’s best is a pipe-dream. There will be a grand total of one Challenger event this year. Even the Futures tournaments are down to six so far. A player development programme is non-existent.

Making the World Group Playoffs for the fourth successive year is indeed noteworthy, but to project that as a barometer for the country’s tennis strength is to completely miss the point.

The Davis Cup calls itself the World Cup of Tennis and like any global event, it has to have regional representation. India, as a result, competes in the Asia-Oceania region where only the Nick Kyrgios-led Australia and the Kei Nishikori-led Japan have very strong teams. If assessed at a global level, Indian tennis, as crude as it may seem, won’t even be a tiny speck in the universe.

During the past two weeks there have been suggestions from various quarters as to how unbecoming it was for the two giants of Indian sport, to repeatedly spar the way they do. It’s equally unbecoming for a country with a rich Davis Cup history to tolerate it forever.