Paes and Bhupathi: time to grow up

Never should Paes and Bhupathi play again on the circuit with each other for no purpose is served; self-respect is a bigger prize than winning. But certainly we expect them to play Davis Cup together, and Asian Games, and Olympics, writes Rohit Brijnath.

When they stepped on court together, and swished their racquets at the opposition, they played with spirit and sassiness. When they stopped playing and started talking, we're lucky they didn't take those racquets to each other. "He said this", collided with "he did that", and in the beginning (seven years ago), we were startled by their separation, then sad, then frustrated.

Now fellows, we're just bored. Find an island, slug it out, sort it out, do something. We despaired when you split, but got over it. So should you.

This writer, like India, has known and admired Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi from a time they once liked each other, which is a fair while ago. They're wonderful men, of strong ambition, who have done (and continue to do) their duty professionally and proudly for India at Davis Cups and Asians Games and Olympics.

Individually and collectively we held them up as examples. Be like them, we cried. We lauded their character and applauded their ambitions and dreamed of an Indian sport landscape infected with their passion.

Now also we hold them up as examples. Of how not to behave in public at an international event. Good men have let themselves down, their fury has got in the way of common sense, their need for one-upmanship has obscured their deeds.

Handing out blame for the events at the Asian Games in Doha is fraught with danger for no episode in this drama stands on its own, every insult given is linked to a slight felt. A sort of "he did this", so "I will say that". It is not the behaviour of mature men.

Certainly Paes seemed to stir the pot on this occasion with his artless comments after the loss against Chinese Taipei about Bhupathi's commitment. For a fellow with fast hands, this was awful timing. Whatever Bhupathi's sins (if any), if he was not fit, or Paes felt he didn't try hard enough, you do not sledge your partner in public. It is an old rule and a good one.

If Paes is team leader then he is responsible for team harmony. He had the right to bark at Bhupathi, but behind closed doors. To chide in front of the cameras was rude and impolitic. Furthermore, Paes had to know that because of the history between both men his comments would acquire a further twist. Journalists cannot be blamed for everything. Evidently hubris was at work here, a familiar sin of older athletes. Paes' commitment has been sound, but it appears he feels it gives him the right to question others.

That Nandan Bal, the coach, should enter the fray and add to those comments was disquieting. Coaches do not fuel revolts but instead must quiet insurrections, yet here was a decent, experienced guide losing his way. In short, in the gaze of an entire continent, Indian tennis had become a circus.

There is occasionally a sense of self-indulgence to Indian sport, where individuals inadvertently put themselves before team, and cause, and pettiness obscures the larger picture. Chappell versus Ganguly was unbecoming, for instance, in the way a private disagreement became an unseemly public war. Older figures are expected to understand discretion. Sometimes our sport is not grown-up. Such skirmishes do not just embarrass us in front of the world, even worse they reveal us.

Paes and Bhupathi, even in 1999, their best year when they won two Slams and arrived at the finals of the other two, hardly spoke to each other off court, but harmonised sweetly on it. This we could respect. Not all team-mates must be friends. But now the little nudges, and small stabs, and verbal elbows in the ribs have become unworthy. They are better men that how they have presented themselves.

So caught in this feckless feud were they that apparently it skipped their mind they were representing India, abroad, with a continent watching. Younger Indian athletes, from various sports, look for their cues from these experienced warriors, in attitude and behaviour, and imagine what they learnt. This was not about them but a wider team under a single banner, and while they won gold they also failed, for as ambassadors they did India a disservice. It is a sentence I never thought I'd write about these men.

If Paes started it with an accusation, Bhupathi would end it with a diatribe. One man had fired his bolt, and predictably the other could not resist. Silence is seen as weakness here, not a virtue, as if to not lash out is to be somehow guilty or unmanly.

Here, too, Bhupathi made statements he might regret in cooler moments. First he would say "I have lived with his (Paes') comments for 12 years, it hurts", yet a month ago he was pushing Paes to play with him until Beijing. Secondly, he felt the need to declare himself the best doubles player India has had, a fact not necessarily in dispute, but preferably uttered by us.

Both men should learn the value of "no comment" when it comes to each other. Surely there are more joys in life than the irritations of an ex-partner. Neither should they suggest at press conferences that they respect each other, or claim playing together is never impossible, for we will see that now as fake.

Never should they play again on the circuit with each other for no purpose is served; self-respect is a bigger prize than winning. But certainly we expect them to play Davis Cup together, and Asian Games, and Olympics. In case they have forgotten, amidst all the accusations, this is still a privilege. What India wants is its best team, but without the baggage.