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Till yesterday, Vijayant Malik was one of the many tennis players from India going about his game far away from the spotlight. Now suddenly, he, along with two others (V M Ranjeet and Purav Raja), finds himself in the middle of a war between the All India Tennis Association (AITA) and eight rebel’ players which has escalated this past week. Malik, Ranjeet and Raja, ranked 542, 517 and 955, respectively, who have never played for India, are overnight part of the Indian Davis Cup team spearheaded by stalwart Leander Paes. The three novices will take on Korea on February 1.
The reason why the 22-year-old Malik and two other rookies have ended up in the team is the much-publicised tussle between players like Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna, Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, Vishnu Vardhan and three others.
The senior players have refused to participate in the Davis Cup till AITA accepts their demands, both in writing and unconditionally. They want the Davis Cup team to have six players to ensure adequate practice partners. This will also ensure that a larger pool of Indian talent is exposed to the Davis Cup playing conditions. Davis Cup teams usually have only four members and a captain. The players also want a say in choosing the surface and venue for home ties. Till now, the venue and surface is chosen by AITA. In principle AITA has relented and agreed to these demands. It has also agreed to a higher share of prize money earned from Davis Cup for players.
The players also wanted former Davis Cupper and tennis player Zeeshan Ali to be the coach. AITA agreed and replaced the earlier coach, Nandan Bal. AITA also agreed to remove physiotherapist Sanjay Singh and consultant Vece Paes from the Davis Cup team. The players were unhappy with the choice of captain as well. They wanted Aditya Sachdeva as the captain. Sachdeva, incidentally, is the head coach of Team Tennis, an academy which comes under Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academies.
Another demand is that the players’ travel arrangements should be upgraded. As of now, not every member of the team is treated equally when it comes to travel or accommodation. The players want parity.
While AITA has agreed to most of the demands, a condition introduced by the association’s secretary, Bharat Oza, has the players up in arms. Oza has said that AITA will introduce a disciplinary code for players. Only those players who sign the code would be eligible for representing the national team. Under the code, the players have to adhere to AITA’s terms and conditions which the association is yet to specify.
This hasn’t gone down well with the players. They want AITA to make its commitment to their demands official and agree to them in writing, something which the association isn’t inclined to do. The players say they don’t want to challenge “the authority of the AITA, but are making a genuine attempt to change things for the improvement of Indian tennis.”
S P Mishra, who is the non-playing captain of the Davis Cup team and whom the players want out, has accused Devvarman of being behind the revolt’.
Devvarman, in an email, has said: “I feel our suggestions have been reasonable and have been arrived at based on what we believe we deserve. If the AITA proposes a solution that is agreeable to all the players, I shall play for the country, if asked.” Vardhan, who represented India at the London Olympics, adds, “We want a team built on merit and professionalism.”
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This is not the first time Indian tennis is facing an unhealthy situation. For at least ten years now, tennis and trouble have gone hand in hand.
Only last year, just before the London Olympics, Bhupathi held the authorities to ransom when he said that he would not partner with anyone but for Bopanna. Paes added to the mess by saying that he would not go to London unless he plays with Bopanna or Bhupathi. Paes eventually called truce and said he was willing to play alongside anyone as long as his mixed doubles partner was Sania Mirza.
Soon after the Olympics, AITA promptly banned Bopanna and Bhupathi from representing India in any international event for two years. Bhupathi lashed out at AITA’s “dictatorial style” of functioning and went to the extent of saying that AITA worked on the divide-and-rule policy, hinting that the authorities enjoyed the rift between Paes and him. Bhupathi and Bopanna challenged AITA’s decision in court and got a stay on the decision.
Earlier too, in 2008, a month before the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan, there was a revolt against the removal of Paes as captain. Bhupathi, Bopanna, Prakash Amritraj and Karan Rastogi accused Paes of putting personal interests above the team. Paes had chosen to play against lesser-known players while he could have given a chance to youngsters like Rastogi and Amritraj. Amritraj, who is an American citizen and is barred from representing India because of his NRI status, was quoted as saying, “This man [Paes] has taken the joy away from playing the Davis Cup.”
What ensued was that Paes had to resign in the following months and Mishra was appointed the captain.
This time around truce appears unlikely with both AITA and the players digging their heels in the ground. “AITA did make certain compromises and the players should make some as well,” says a former Davis Cupper. Bopanna, however, feels that the suggestions made to AITA are for the sake of the sport. “Each of us, who is playing for the country, believes that these changes will result in a stronger and fairly-selected team that can represent the nation on multiple platforms,” he says.
Hiranmoy Chatterjee, chief executive, AITA, in a statement to the media has said that “no indiscipline will be tolerated”. “We’ve accepted the demands which we could,” he added. AITA also claims that two of the rebel’ players did initially agree to drop their demands and make themselves available for the tie against Korea. “A player cannot be administrator, selector and a player at the same time,” Chatterjee told mediapersons.
Devvarman says AITA is being “extremely unprofessional” and all that the players want is for the sport to be run in a professional manner. He adds that he will stand united with the rest of the players and continue to push for changes in the system that are necessary for the sport to grow. “My involvement will always be for the greater good of the team and what we believe is best for our team. We will not continue to function with these archaic methods of management,” he says.
Giving a thumbs-up to the players, Bhupathi has said: “If Leander (Paes) and I could have been on the same page years ago, we would have done the same but the next generation seems to have us back on track now. I admire their desire to improve the state of affairs.”
AITA, meanwhile, has threatened to cut off government grants to players who refuse to play for India in the Davis Cup. Tennis players receive individual grants of up to Rs 15 lakh per year.
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Amid this war of words, Paes has maintained a stoic silence. In fact, he did not comment during the Olympics controversy either. He has made himself available for the tie against Korea. “Leander,” says Chatterjee, “is always available for the country.”
Some believe that it is the rift between Paes and Bhupathi which has brought things to such a pass. Paes and Bhupathi, who won three Grand Slam titles in 1999 as partners, have been at loggerheads for the last 12 years. While they have teamed up in the past, the friction between them has grown in the last two years. Paes has always been seen as AITA’s man, while Bhupathi has always been against AITA. “This ugly fracas is disappointing,” says a former coach of the Davis Cup team. “The biggest loser in this is the game,” he adds.
As things stand today, no solution appears to be in sight. Paes, with three rookies, will take on Korea in the upcoming Davis Cup tie. Korea might not be the biggest challenge for the team as its players have similar ranking to those of the Indian players. But that’s not the issue here. The question is: will this war end anytime soon? Or will such conflicts continue till Paes and Bhupathi remain the cornerstones of Indian tennis?