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Games before the Olympics
What was the real reason behind Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna's refusal to partner Leander Paes at the Olympics? And, what trump card does Sania Mirza hold in this melee?
In the heist thriller The Bank Job, Jason Statham, who plays Terry Leather, a petty criminal gone straight, is offered an interesting money-making proposition by his friend's model ex-girlfriend : help her rob a bank and split the money. Halfway through the robbery, Leather realises that it was never about the money. The mission was always to retrieve a safety deposit box of incriminating pictures.
The unfolding tennis saga over the past week has pretty much taken the same route. Leander Paes by virtue of his ranking, No 7 in doubles, had assured himself a direct entry for London 2012. All that the 13-times Grand Slam champion, whose latest big win was the Australian Open, expected to do was name his partner of choice and go back to regular life. The All India Tennis Association did as Paes expected. They chose him and his former friend and partner Mahesh Bhupathi as India's entry for men's doubles.
Therein began the fight.
Bhupathi, who had teamed with Paes last year but started 2012 with Rohan Bopanna with the Olympics in mind, flatly refused this suggestion flat and appealed to the AITA to consider his pairing with Bopanna. Citing tennis logic and rankings, AITA stood by its original decision. Unfazed, Paes said he was ready to play with Bopanna. He too declined.
Taunts and jabs flew fast. Words like 'liar' and 'backstabber' were traded. Fathers got involved as did the sports minister. If earlier Bhupathi threatened to not play, then it was Paes' turn to get petulant and say it would be unfair to him if he was made to play with a weaker player. Indian tennis' dirty linen took on stains no detergent could get out.
With hours left for the final nominations to be submitted to the International Tennis Federation, Anil Khanna, president of the All Indian Tennis Association, sought to mollify all sulking parties. Bhupathi and Bopanna were allowed to play and 'patriot' Paes was asked to partner Vishnu Vardhan. As a peace offering, Paes would also play the mixed doubles with Sania Mirza, who is yet to get a wild card for London 2012.
Huge sighs of relief could be heard from one part of SW19 where the two Bangalore boys were practising. But Paes was far from mollified. Just as Khanna issued a statement announcing the new entries, Paes was waking up and his first reaction was, "this is unfair. "
As a player, Paes has very rarely disappointed. Every time he has turned out holding the tri-colour, he has played at a level higher than his abilities foretell. He has single-handedly taken on Goliaths like Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic, Chilean maverick Marcelo Rios and Frenchman Henri Leconte in Davis Cup matches. At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, where he won bronze, he beat Richey Reneberg, world No. 20, Nicolas Pereira, world No. 74, Thomas Enqvist, world No. 10. He then proceeded to shock then world No. 26, forced world No. 6 Andre Agassi to a first-set tie-breaker in the semis but lost. Against world No. 93 Fernando Meligeni he played out of his skin and won India's first medal since 1952.
If there's anyone in India who can elevate his game and rise to the occasion taking his partner up with him, it is Paes. Vardhan could be ranked 207 in doubles but he is young and has a good serve and can handle the vagaries of grass. Isn't that what Paes wanted when he told Bhupathi he needed someone with fresher legs? Yes, Paes who is the seventh best doubles player in the world and a former world No. 1 has every right to feel a little miffed but given that neither of his earlier choices were willing to partner him, it was time to man up and move on. But Paes didn't do that. The word "withdrawal" could be heard echoing through the corridors of AITA. Would Paes give up the chance to play his sixth Olympics? Was he ready to give up what we can imagine will be his last shot at an Olympic medal? Vece Paes' father, as he has done through the week, came on television and presented his son's case. "If AITA cannot guarantee Leander-Mahesh or Leander-Bopanna and he has to play with a younger player, then what's the guarantee he will get to play mixed doubles with Sania, " Dr Paes complained on national television.
We stopped and thought for a minute. Wasn't Paes supposed to be upset over being paired with Vardhan? When did mixed doubles become the issue? Then realisation dawned. It was always about the mixed doubles spot. What was being wheeled out as a compromise was in fact no compromise at all.
Even though mixed doubles is a lot of fun, you can't afford to laugh at something that can win you a Grand Slam. And surprise, surprise both Paes and Bhupathi have won a combined total of 14 mixed doubles trophies.
All the three players - Paes, Bhupathi and Bopanna - have been crying hoarse about medal chances being affected if they are not sent with the partners of their choice. But if one is brutally objective, a medal in the men doubles is a long shot, no matter who plays with whom. With the Bryan brothers there and all the top singles players chuffed about playing on the Wimbledon courts for an Olympic medal, no permutation or combination of the Indian players has a serious shot at a medal.
Mixed doubles, though, is another matter. With only 16 teams to be accepted, one just has to win two matches to reach the semifinals and be within touching distance of that medal. Both Bhupathi and Paes know that with all the top singles players giving the mixed doubles a miss, their chances are brighter than anyone else's.
Bhupathi might've been placated with his request of partnering with Bopanna being acquiesced but did he give up his claim of being the best mixed doubles bet too
Paes' fear and frustration rose from the fact that Bhupathi and Sania had just won the French Open title and there's nothing stopping them from ganging up against him, just like Bhupathi and Bopanna did. If they won at Wimbledon again, media and public pressure could turn on him. Bhupathi also needed to play doubles to be eligible for mixed doubles and many including him think that he should play with Sania at the Olympics too.
So Paes went to Khanna demanding a written assurance that it would be only him who would play the mixed doubles.
The question of Sania playing the London Olympics remains in balance till she gets a wildcard, a job that shouldn't require Khanna to break into a sweat. As the president of the Asian Tennis Federation, Khanna has considerable clout in the ITF.
But how could Khanna, who couldn't put his foot down and stop two players from holding him and the association to ransom, now give Paes a guarantee? Not for nothing does Khanna have the number of greys on his head as he does. He pulled what observers have called a rabbit out of the bag and got Paes what he needed.
Under the protective and authoritative cover of the Indian Olympic Association, Khanna found his solution. "We've clearly told the IOA these are the final recommendations for endorsement by the IOA and these nominations will not be changed without the prior written approval of the IOA lest some people believe that they could try and change the mixed doubles. AITA has decided that it will be Leander and only Leander as far as playing mixed doubles is concerned, " Khanna told the media milling around him on Thursday evening.
Though no official confirmation was forthcoming, maybe silence from Paes' side does mean acceptance. The saga that very nearly became the telly's favourite hourly soap opera was finally put to rest.
By the time the clock strikes 11 am on July 31- the last day for mixed doubles nominations to be filed - all this might be forgotten drama but as fans we shouldn't forget the way we were deceived by our favourite players.
LEANDER-BHUPATHI : A LOVE-HATE SAGA
Paired together for the first time in a low-rung Challenger event
Play the Atlanta Olympics and lose in the 2nd round
Semifinals of the US Open is their best Grand Slam result
Win two Grand Slams and lose two and are ranked the No. 1 team in the world
Apparently split over Bhupathi's insistence on travelling with Enrico Piperno after a shoulder injury and possibly over sponsorship remuneration agreements. "The fact is that Mahesh's coach Enrico Piperno, by badmouthing me to Mahesh, my sponsors and my friends, created a lack of trust in the friendship between Mahesh and myself, and that is something that eventually got the better of us, " Paes says in an interview at the time. Bhupathi patches up with Paes in August and wins his first title of the year in Tokyo
Win their second French Open and three ATP titles. Stories of how the two physically fought and asssaulted each other over the affections of a model at the Chennai Open make the rounds
The Indian Express split again when Bhupathi tells Paes that he wants a new partner after the duo lose the first round at the Delray Beach tournament. "This is no one person's fault. Such early exits indicate some deeper performance related problems When we lost so often, as early as we did, I think we may both have felt a lack of of motivation, "Bhupathi says. Speculation rises that commercial interests of the two players - Paes' management company Paes-En-Sports, wasn't doing as well whereas Bhupathi and his dad had helped in successfully running the World's Doubles Finals - might have also played a role. They play as a pair in India's Davis Cup campaign against New Zealand and Libya.
Pair plays together at Davis Cup
Play Davis Cup ties against New Zealand and Japan. Come together to play a few tournaments before the Olympics and at Athens lose a heartbreaking bronze playoff to Croatia
Play in three Davis Cup ties against Sweden, Uzbekistan and China
After playing at the Asian Games in Doha, Paes questions Bhupathi's commitment and fitness. "I just feel that Hesh (Bhupathi) should be honest with himself, his injuries and his tennis. I have tremendous respect for him;he's a fantastic tennis player and has done a lot for the country. But, at the moment, he needs to be honest with himself, the way he's playing, the way his career's going and also with his responsibility to the team, " Paes says. The war of words between the two players gets stronger. Ironically, it was Paes who persuaded Bhupathi to play at Doha. Around the same time, Bhupathi hopes to rally players around against AITA
Bhupathi makes it clear he doesn't want to play with Paes at the Beijing Olympics, asking to be paired with Bopanna instead. "It's just too late to play with Leander. He has made his plans clear for the lead-up to the Olympics, that he will play with his new partner Lukas Dlouhy so that he can get enough points to make it into the Shanghai Masters. That means he doesn't want to prepare with me for the Olympics. We have been assigned for just a week's training in Mumbai, that too in the middle of the monsoons. If the AITA doesn't want to take things seriously, then they can do whatever they like. "But relents to AITA's pressure. The pair plays a couple of tournaments before Beijing but loses in the quarterfinals. Interestingly, Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj earlier in the year write to AITA that unless Paes is replaced as the Davis Cup team captain, they won't play. They have the tacit approval of Bhupathi
Questions of 'will they, won't they' continue haunting the two. Team up to play Davis Cup tie against Chinese Taipei
Play Davis Cup ties against Brazil and Russia. Decide to play together after "discovering the spark"
Start the new association with a bang, win Chennai Open and lose Australian Open finals. Amicably split after Paes wishes to play with a younger partner. "Leander felt that we were possibly a little too old on the tour and not able to gel on a consistent basis. He felt that our team needed fresh legs on either side. That was his point of view, "says Mahesh. Interestingly, Paes was approached by Bopanna to play together in 2012 but the Coorgi ultimately decides to play with Bhupathi which could've soured relations to a dangerous point.
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