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Tennis trouble

Another deadlock hits Indian tennis

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Indian tennis is at the crossroads again. It has been there so often in recent times - thanks to playerfederation stand-offs and superstar spats - that one wonders if it would ever hit the expressway or if this state of maddening uncertainty was its only constant.

A turbulent season in which the three-way tussle between Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes was poorly handled by the All India Tennis Association (AITA), resulting in the country's tennis campaign at the 2012 London Olympics coming to nought, was capped by a sensational expose in the new year. A bunch of players - Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, Vishnu Vardhan, Sanam Singh, Divij Sharan, Saketh Myneni, Rohan Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupathi - dashed off a mail to AITA asking for professional management and better playing conditions for team India.

The players asked for a greater percentage of the Davis Cup purse and better treatment of team members, besides calling for change of the support staff that comprises SP Misra (non-playing captain), Nandan Bal (coach), Vece Paes (doctor) and Sanjay Singh (physio). The players pressed for younger professionals, who are in tune with modern requirements of the game;namely Bhambri's mentor Aditya Sachdeva as coach, Yash Pandey as physio and 40-year-old Rohit Rajpal, formerly India's No 1 junior, as nonplaying captain. Some of the present support staff have been part of the team well before a few of the players asking for this change were born. Experience is a good thing, but professionals also come with a use-by date.

AITA followed-up with a compromise formula that refused to address player concerns, stoked by a trust deficit. AITA showed the door to most of the support staff and came-up with 43-year-old Zeeshan Ali, a former Davis Cupper with praiseworthy credentials, as its choice for coach. The stylish, Bangalore-based pro, however, has lived out of the country for the last 15 years because of which he barely knows the present bunch of players. The national body asked Misra to stay on as captain for one more tie (February 2013) in order to give him a fitting send-off. For the positions of doctor and physio, they planned to seek help from the Sports Authority of India, who have limited personnel on their medical and fitness teams, for assistance.

While the players turned their backs on the half-hearted move, AITA toyed with the idea of fielding a depleted side against South Korea for the Asia-Oceania Group 1 first round tie to be played on hardcourts in New Delhi from February 1 to 3. The national federations have until 10 days before the start of the opening-round contest to name their teams.

The why and what of the revolt has been hugely debated with a number of theories doing the rounds. Why for instance, did the players suddenly decide to take on the national body? The most popular take is the players' move being viewed as a continuation of the Paes-Bhupathi feud, the young pros are seen to be siding with Bhupathi in order to oust long-standing members of the support staff Dr Vece Paes, Leander's father, and the Kolkatan's personal physio Sanjay Singh, a tennis coach based in Singapore. The player unrest is also being tacitly linked to AITA vicepresident Karti Chidambaram, who has been given the cold shoulder by AITA president Anil Khanna's camp. Interestingly, on the AITA website, names and contact details of all AITA officials from the president to web coordinator have been made available to the browser. Contact details of everyone that is, except the ten vicepresidents among who is Chidambaram.

There may or may not be any truth in the theories, but to assume that the players would dance to someone else's tune is to insult the intelligence and integrity of a resolute character like Somdev Devvarman. It's possible that the players may have been influenced in a couple of choices, but to think that they are fighting someone else's battle is ridiculous. It is perfectly understandable that the players have had their fill of a largely self-serving association. Point to note: AITA named its premier stadium in the country not after a pioneering great such as Ramanathan Krishnan, the highest ranked Indian ever in world tennis, but after an official the current president's father Ram Kumar Khanna.

On their part, the players should have refrained from making demands, like naming their specific choices for members of the Davis Cup support staff. Choice of personnel and venue is the prerogative of the selection and executive committees, but given the way AITA functions, doling out key positions on the Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams for reasons of convenience and compromise, the players didn't have much of a choice but to make their preferences known.

The trust deficit is rather steep between the two factions. It didn't help that the AITA leaked the players' confidential communication to the media. It cast the youngsters, who are being looked at as rebellious and spoilt, in poor light as the letter concluded with the threat of a boycott. Then when AITA's half-measures hit a deadend, their officials issued tame threats to the players, saying the 'rebels' wouldn't be considered for government grants. The sports ministry, however, was quick on the button, stating unequivocally that there were no grants available to tennis players outside of what was handed to them in an Olympic year. In an obvious attempt to shakeup the rebel camp, AITA sources let it be known to a section of the media that the younger of the eight-man group were in dialogue with the association and were keen to represent the country.

Indian tennis has had so many player crisis that it is shocking that the association hasn't worked out either a formula for a dealing with new demands or worked at an equation that would enable both sides to work on equal footing. It's clear, however, that the two factions are not speaking the same language, which brings the communication down to zero. It's a deadlock. That's not good for anyone, least of all Indian tennis.

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