There is something sacred about representing one’s country in any international sporting event. Many prominent sportsmen including Vijay Amritraj and Leander Paes have spoken about the goose pimples they have felt when they hear the national anthem being played when they – or the team of which they have been a member of – emerge triumphant.
One of the most vividly remembered photographs in the history of Indian sport has been that of Paes shedding tears of joy as he stood on the podium after winning the bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
"One does not refuse to play for England," said Cyril Washbrook in 1956. The veteran batsman was recalled at the age of 41 to play against Australia at Leeds and the one of the most famous quotes in sporting history was made in response to widespread public and press criticism against his selection. Representing your country is an honour which almost nothing can equal. In years to come he or she can say with pride "I represented the country."
Such thoughts come to mind in the wake of the controversy surrounding the boycott of some of the leading tennis players against representing India in the Davis Cup encounter against South Korea. There is no denying the fact that Somdev Devvarman and the seven others who took the extreme step have arguments in their favour. It is also true that officialdom in India tends to be autocratic in their attitude towards the players.
Overall however there are ways and means to supplant any problem however serious they may be. The right approach would be to play and then both parties can sit and thrash out their differences. A little bit of give and take and sooner than you know it the problem is solved. But to turn your back on your country for whatever reasons is unacceptable.
Unfortunately this is the second time in six months that Indian tennis has been hit by a major controversy. On the eve of the London Olympics we had the unedifying spectacle of Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna making it clear that they would play as a pair and Leander Paes was left in the cold despite being named as Bhupathi’s partner by the AITA.
This snowballed with Paes portraying himself as a martyr and then Sania Mirza stating her case for being needlessly dragged into the controversy. The upshot was that the Indian tennis squad came back without a medal and later on the AITA took disciplinary action against Bopanna and Bhupathi who did not exactly win friends during their petulant, ill timed and totally needless controversy by virtually holding the parent body to ransom, creating a lot of ill feeling among fellow players and losing a lot of goodwill with the tennis fraternity in the country.
One only hopes that the latest seamy events do not affect India’s chances against South Korea but it could well happen. Any controversy can hit a team or a player and to be candid the Indian team looks pretty emaciated. It is not even a B team but a C team that will be on duty for apart from Paes who has not joined the revolt everyone else is way down below in the international rankings.
VM Ranjeet and Vijayant Malik are ranked 517 and 542 respectively while another doubles specialist Purav Raja will team up with Paes. The Indians may still pull it off for two reasons. One, the tie is being played at home in New Delhi from February 1 to 3. Second South Korea is not exactly a powerhouse in world tennis as evidenced by the ranking of their leading players who are all ranked between 338 and 485.
But whether India win against South Korea or not, it is clear that two controversies in six months does not augur well for the future of Indian tennis. There is clearly an underlying current of tension and distrust between the players and the parent body and this can only mean that Indian tennis is the big loser. The sooner the two warring parties sit down and have a frank and open discussion over issues that are keeping them apart the better.
The AITA for a start should show its willingness to be less authoritative while the players should shed their egos. In the current controversy it must be said that the AITA at least made an attempt to meet the players halfway but the rigid approach of the latter did not help matters.
It did not speak well of them to question the credentials of Zeeshan Ali who was appointed coach by the AITA or to show disrespect to a senior person like SP Misra under whom the team has achieved quite a bit. Both Zeeshan and Misra are hurt and angry as they have every right to be.
Whatever the record or reputation of any player, he or she is not bigger than the country. The signatories to the five point charter of demands should know that anyone would give an arm and a leg for the unique experience of representing your country. They have set an unwelcome precedent for future generations.
The AITA deserves credit for taking a firm stand on the issue. It is always better to invest in youth rather than falling back upon veterans who consider themselves prima donnas. The issue can still be resolved by mediation but will the warring parties come to the table?