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Sport

What exactly is patriotism, Mr. Paes?

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IT'S LIKE THIS: Indian Davis Cup players Vijayant Malik (left) and Ranjeeth (centre) are all ears as senior pro Leander Paes holds forth during practice in New Delhi

Leander Paes simply suits himself. At a pre-Davis Cup press conference in New Delhi earlier in the week, he claimed, "I love to play for the flag and people of India. I have not had a choice with that. " To a subsequent question, which dealt with his decision to turn-up for a Team Tennis outfit in the US the same weekend a young Indian side took on New Zealand in a Davis Cup clash in Chandigarh last September, Paes said, "I had signed a contract. When you have a contract, you have a commitment. "

The veteran pro, who recently debuted in a forgettable Bollywood flick that has won him little appreciation, much in contrast to his theatre in tennis where he has loved to play the great patriot, perhaps forgot that commitment to country comes before contractual obligations to dollar-doling clubs. The All India Tennis Association, which took it upon itself to tender Paes' excuses, said the Kolkatan had requested not to be considered for selection owing to the 'emotional turmoil' he had endured in June in the leadup to the London Olympics.

Predictably then, Paes continues to suit himself. He was quick to denounce the players' stand, led by the resolute Somdev Devvarman, who approached AITA demanding better playing conditions for team India. The players - Somdev, Yuki Bhambri, Vishnu Vardhan, Sanam Singh, Divij Sharan, Saketh Myneni, Sriram Balaji, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, Vijay Sundar Prashanth, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna - took up the matter with the Anil Khanna-led AITA last month, asking for professional and transparent functioning of the association, equal treatment of players, and a greater share of Davis Cup prize-money.

AITA, who met the players' requests with threats and lies, didn't meet the players even halfway. Then setting a deadline that did nobody, least of all Indian tennis any good, AITA's selection committee named a lowly-ranked side with Paes at the helm to represent India in this weekend's Davis Cup tie.

The stand adopted by Somdev and Co deserves the highest appreciation because of its selfless motive, a fight for player welfare, which promises to secure the future of the game in the country. It must be noted here that some of the players, who've backed Somdev haven't even played Davis Cup and because of their stand may never play for the country, but they have risked it keeping in mind the bigger picture - society ahead of individual and team ahead of personal ambition.
Paes, who had his father Dr Vece and personal physio Sanjay Singh among Davis Cup support staff for longer than some of these players have been hitting tennis balls, once again played the patriot, saying, "I don't believe that rebellion is good. In my opinion communication should always be open. The game should not suffer and the country should not suffer. "

As a senior pro, if Paes indeed had concerns of team and country in his heart, what stopped him from mediating between the players and the association, from approaching Anil Khanna, with who he shares a great understanding, and ensuring Indian tennis didn't suffer?

Ironically, if AITA does pull out the new contracts for the Davis Cup team, which they claim to have done a fortnight ago, the present bunch - Virali-Murgesan Ranjeet, (ranked 511), Vijayant Malik (537) and Purav Raja (155 in doubles and 915 in singles) along with Paes - will be the first beneficiaries. The men, who fought to make this happen, sacrificing more than the likes of Paes will ever know, will be branded 'rebels'.

When Paes led the 1993 revolt against the association, the chief ask at the time being a greater stake in prize-money, he had the support of all the players. Now when it is the 39-year-old's turn to support his fellow pros he's singing 'team and country' tunes.

Last summer, at the All-England Club, Paes wondered before an international press gathering if his partner for the Olympics, Vishnu Vardhan, had grasscourt shoes. He then issued an ultimatum to AITA, breaking the Grand Slam winning pairing of Bhupathi and Sania Mirza to play mixed-doubles with the Hyderabadi at the London Games.

The man billed as India's No. 1 Davis Cupper is indeed a poor team man.

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