In 1956 Cyril Washbrook was recalled to the England team at the age of 41. He was a selector and had not played Test cricket for over five years. The decision was widely ridiculed as an unnecessary panic measure in the midst of an Ashes series in which England were one down. Washbrook was subjected to much criticism and there were even suggestions that he might not play. But when asked to respond to all this he came up with the classic remark: "One does not refuse to play for England."
Washbrook’s famous remark comes back to mind in the wake of the crisis in Indian tennis following the decision of both Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna to refuse to play with Leander Paes in the doubles event of the London Olympics after the All India Tennis Association had selected the Bhupathi – Paes pairing as the duo to represent India. Bhupathi made it clear that he would not pair with Paes and now Bopanna has followed suit. Paes on the other hand has expressed his willingness to play with any partner.
The IPL has given wake to the controversy surrounding country vs club. The present tennis crisis has given a new twist – country or self. Around the ATP circuit players represent only themselves and not the country. It is not the case when it comes to Davis Cup or Olympics or Asian Games when it is the country that gets the medal and not just the winners.
Given this background it would seem churlish on the part of Bhupathi and Bopanna not to follow the AITA selection. The pairing of Bhupathi and Paes have not exactly covered themselves with glory at the Olympics. At four such events they have not won a medal. But none can question their experience and their impressive record as a pair over the years during which they have won a number of ATP tournaments besides Grand Slam events. Moreover Paes is India’s highest ranked doubles player at the moment.
Bhupathi and Bopanna have not done badly as a pair and have struck a good on court chemistry of late. Indeed Bhupathi has insisted on being paired with Bopanna with whom he joined hands at the start of the season specifically with the Olympics in mind.
For that matter Bhupathi and Paes have enjoyed a good chemistry on court but they have also had their well publicized feuds. Overall theirs has been an uneasy relationship with their egos sometimes getting the better of them. The result has been an estranged relationship on and off the court which has left Indian tennis fans nonplussed and authorities shaking their heads in frustration.
Given the present unhappy scenario it is unlikely that Bhupathi and Paes will put their best foot forward even if miraculously they put behind their serious differences and come together for the Olympics. At the moment this seems virtually impossible particularly after Bhupathi’s vitriolic attacks on Paes which include calling him a "back stabber". He has said he cannot even look at him leave alone playing tennis with him and has termed the AITA decision to team them both as "not in the best interests of the country."
All things considered Paes seems to have come out with the best image in the present crisis. He has made it clear that he is willing to pair with any player and has spoken highly of Bopanna’s capabilities. The veteran who celebrated his 39th birthday on Sunday opened a new vista for India’s medal hopes at the Olympics by clinching the singles bronze at Atlanta in 1996. It was India’s first individual medal at the Games since KD Jadhav won a wrestling bronze at Helsinki in 1952. Since Paes’ feat in 1996 India has won at least one individual medal in every Olympics.
It cannot even be said that Paes is past his best for he is still winning titles around the ATP circuit and has a top ten ranking. Just this year he clinched the Australian Open doubles title completing a personal Grand Slam for he had earlier won the French, Wimbledon and US Open tiles with different partners. Under the circumstances the AITA’s stand that it is difficult to keep Paes out from the doubles team for the Olympics is well grounded.
Even they however would not have bargained for the kind of open revolt initiated by both Bhupathi and Bopanna. But AITA president Anil Khanna has taken a hard stance by threatening the players with disciplinary action both for their inflammatory comments and refusal to represent the country. The other option for the AITA would be to soften its stand and select either Yuki Bhambri or Somdev Devvarman to partner Paes.
So will there be a compromise? Will AITA continue with its tough stand? Will Bhupathi or Bopanna have a change of heart, put country above self, say a la Washbrook that ``one does not refuse to play for India’’ and agree to represent the country in the Olympics? Will Bhupathi and Paes kiss and make up as they have done so often in the past however unlikely it might look this time?
Or will two teams be sent as is being suggested by the Sports Ministry? The next few days could well throw up the answers. A solution amicable to all must be hammed out soon otherwise the already unhappy episode will cause Indian tennis considerable damage.