In October 2013, shortly after taking over as India’s Davis Cup captain, Anand Amritraj, in an interview to The Hindu had said: “It’s going to be smooth sailing. This coming year will see peace and harmony in the side, and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t.”
The choice of words was instructive. For, in the preceding one year Indian tennis had been through a tumultuous time — from the fiasco that the London Olympics’ selection was to 11 players, including the likes of Somdev Devvarman, Rohan Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupathi, pulling out of the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I tie against South Korea.
It was a period marked by utter chaos, personal animosity and bad blood between many a stakeholder. The players had revolted demanding an increased share in Davis Cup prize money, business class airfare, change in support staff, consultations with them before choosing the surface and the venue for the home ties. In the words of Devvarman, the protest was “one of the most remarkable things,” to have happened in Indian sport.
Amritraj’s appointment, as he himself alluded to, was the balm. As an affable man, the then 60-year-old seemed equally approachable to a young man and veteran alike — from Yuki Bhambri to Leander Paes. With a rich Davis Cup pedigree — of being part of the team when India reached the final, both in 1974 and 1987 — he commanded respect.
In the three years since then there has been nothing to suggest that it has been anything but smooth sailing. The sense of camaraderie in the team is unmistakable. Also in each of the last three years, India reached the World Group playoff, only to be undone by tough draws against Serbia, Czech Republic and Spain. In fact, it stretched Serbia all the way to the fifth rubber.
Set against this backdrop, the recent rumblings of discontent among a few top office-bearers of the All India Tennis Association (AITA) pertaining to Amritraj’s tenure and possible extension of it have evoked surprise. At the same time, it is perhaps revealing that the issue is the alleged “lack of discipline” in the team rather than performance on court.
“I don’t think anybody can point a finger at me. Nothing is tennis-related,” Amritraj said recently. “There is absolutely no basis (to these allegations), and things are being misrepresented. We have had three very good years considering the team we had. All have played above their levels. We have been in the World Group play-offs thrice. We came very close against Serbia and the Czech Republic. When I took over, our Davis Cup ranking was 28. Now it is 19. It’s the highest since the days Vijay (Amritraj) and I played.”
The charges of indiscipline date back to 2014. It is alleged that a player brought his girlfriend to the dressing room while rest of the team was out on the court during the World Group play-off tie against Serbia in Bengaluru. Then, during the Asia/Oceania tie against South Korea in Chandigarh in early 2016, the team reportedly went out for drinks after sealing the tie on Saturday, with reverse singles still to be played. Amritraj’s comments about neither him nor the players being consulted before choosing the surface or the timings for the match against Spain also seems to have irked the AITA.
In fairness, Amritraj has issued a point-by-point rebuttal to these charges. It doesn’t help the AITA’s case that there might in fact be no clear-cut way of establishing the truth other than to believe in either of the versions.
The controversy with respect to the Spain tie is flippant at best and highlights the authorities’ disapproval of any dissent. It is to be noted that consultation with players and captain was one of things originally agreed upon. Amritraj later changed his stance too, reasoning that with Saketh Myneni having to play on all three days, it was not a bad idea to play in the evenings as opposed to playing during the day, as he had earlier desired.
“We, the players, understand more how we can be in best position to win,” Devvarman told the Press Trust of India, coming out in support of Amritraj. “If I had played that tie against Spain, I would not have played in the evening.” It is true that the AITA is yet to make up its mind on Amritraj’s future. But the very fact that there is a section which might not want him to continue is a tad disturbing.
When Amritraj was brought in, he was to usher in a new thinking. This he tried by seeking to realign India’s priorities, which for long — some would say still — romanticised its doubles pairings at the cost of singles. “Without two singles players in the Top-150, you will go nowhere,” he maintained all through.
That he and coach Zeeshan Ali managed to take India to the World Group play-offs thrice in spite of having both Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri — India’s best singles players — fully fit at the same time only for one out of three seasons is indeed praiseworthy.
“If the AITA is not prepared to heed the wishes of the players and wants to use some pretext of indiscipline or some comment I originally made about match timings, to terminate me as Captain, then so be it.”
If it comes to that, it will be a sorry end to what has been more than a modestly productive time.
The role of a non-playing captain
“When Vijay (Amritraj) and I played, we were each other’s coach. These days even doubles players have coaches! It is very helpful with the mental aspect.” This was Anand Amritraj, in an interview to Sportstar on the importance of coaching in modern-day tennis.
In Davis Cup, a non-playing captain — a misleading term — is essentially a man-manager and motivator. With players assembling to play for the country only for a few days, it is quite impossible to hone technical skills over a period of time. But as Zeeshan Ali said, “If a player, in the heat of the moment, gets a little ahead, a look from the captain or the coach helps.”
In the Indian Davis Cup set-up, it is this role that Amritraj fulfils. From structuring the team, to establishing its purposes, to helping individual members, to getting rid of organisational roadblocks it involves everything.
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