Indian tennis has turned into a soap opera in the weeks leading up to the London Olympics, with insults and accusations of treachery flying and some players openly seething at their doubles partners.
The conflict centers on Leander Paes, India’s most recognizable face in tennis to the outside world, but an athlete who has apparently burned bridges with nearly every one of his potential teammates.
Paes became a national hero when he won a bronze medal in singles at the 1996 Atlanta Games, breaking a 44-year drought of individual Olympic medals for India. At 39, he’s still considered one of the country’s best medal hopes as one of the world’s top doubles players.
The problem is there’s a lack of Indian players willing to partner with him.
He was initially supposed to play in India’s only men’s double entry with former partner Mahesh Bhupathi, with whom he won 26 doubles titles on the professional tour, including three in Grand Slams.
But Bhupathi, who also has an enviable record in doubles play and was ranked 14th in the world, refused to play with Paes because he had been teamed with Rohan Bopanna on the ATP circuit in preparation for the Olympics. Bopanna, ranked 12th in doubles, turned Paes down for the same reason.
Indian tennis officials scrambled to put Bopanna and Bhupathi together as a second doubles entry and partner Paes with 307th-ranked Vishnu Vardhan, whom Paes proceeded to publicly belittle.
”I don’t think he’s been to Wimbledon before,” said Paes, ranked seventh in doubles. ”I don’t even know if he has grass-court shoes, poor guy.”
Paes was so reluctant to play with Vardhan, Indian tennis officials had to sweeten the deal, promising he could play mixed doubles, considered a more realistic medal opportunity, with India’s top female player, Sania Mirza.
Mirza, who had just won the French Open mixed doubles with Bhupathi, was not happy.
”As an Indian woman belonging to the 21st century, what I find disillusioning is the humiliating manner in which I was put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis,” she said.
Trying to calm the angry Mirza, tennis officials named her mother as a team manager, sending her to London as well.
The conflict between Paes and Bhupathi has been a major talking point in Indian sport, and even five-time world chess champion Viswanathan Anand weighed in on the debate this week, saying the affair had been mishandled.
”They have disagreements and that’s normal in a sport. But they should have done it much ahead and done it quietly when there’s time. It’s unpleasant,” Anand said.
Veteran sports analyst Ayaz Memon said the divisions in the squad cannot be overcome quickly.
”There’s been so much bad blood, some of it’s bound to linger on,” he said. ”It’s not the best thing to happen, but then the Olympics are a strange event and you might just see people play above their levels.”
Former national champion and Davis Cup coach Nandan Bal believes Paes’ best chance of a medal is in mixed doubles.
”That’s where Leander has been doing well. And Sania does not hold back, either,” he said. ”Winning any medal in the Olympics will be huge for India and a gold medal could do to the game what Abhinav Bindra’s gold in rifle shooting did to popularize the sport in this country.”
Memon, too, says mixed doubles presents India with the best chance.
”For Paes and Sania, the field might not be as daunting. There have been complications, but if they are able to compartmentalize things and put aside the bickering, there’s a lot of hope.”
So, Paes, who has 13 Grand Slam victories in doubles and mixed doubles – including three with Bhupathi – remains a medal hope 20 years after he partnered with Ramesh Krishnan in men’s doubles at Barcelona.
Paes’ best chance of a second Olympic medal came with Bhupathi when the pair made the bronze medal playoff at Athens in 2004 during one of their many patch-ups.
Will he be able to pull off something better this time?
Bal warns that the Olympic environment is completely different to the pro tour. Staging the Olympics tennis tournament on the iconic lawn tennis courts at Wimbledon, starting July 28, will further enhance the status of the competition.
”Big names the world over don’t play in ATP or WTA doubles events. But in the Olympics, every player worth his name will be out there trying to win a medal,” Bal said. ”It will include players like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It makes the event far tougher. To win a medal would be spectacular.”