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Divide and rule

When AITA played ping pong with Indian tennis

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THEN AND NOW: Initially reluctant to partner Vishnu Vardhan at the Olympics, Leander Paes consented after it was agreed that Sania Mirza would play alongside him in the mixed doubles

The Indian tennis contingent at the London Olympics - Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna, Vishnu Vardhan, Sania Mirza and Rushmi Chakravarthi - needed a medal to redeem themselves. All they returned, however, was three first round victories. Mocked and criticized for the messy runup to the Games that turned team selections into a faltering circus act, the players were gutted. Tears drops were falling in the rain all over The All England Club.

The Anil Khanna-led All India Tennis Association, who approached the Olympic selections as if it were a family durbar, where one man's whimsical wishes rode over better sense and fair play, however, get away scotfree. Khanna and co have a lot to answer for. If there were any criteria and selection norms for the quadrennial affair, outside of what the International Tennis Federation handed out, the players were unaware of it. And for most part, the selectors too.

Indian tennis legend Vijay Amritraj, who was at Wimbledon earlier in the summer, wondered what the fuss surrounding the selections was all about? "This isn't an unknown situation, " he said, "We had three men's doubles players in the top tier, a fourth wasn't going to miraculously appear and we had one woman in the doubles, a second one of that ability wasn't going to explode on the scene overnight. We knew the Olympics was slated to be held at Wimbledon, on grass, in July-August this year, that wasn't going to go way. We had a situation, what we didn't have was a plan. These decisions should have been taken in November last not one month before the Olympics. This isn't an event you just show up at, you prepare for it. Every country does it, even in a sport like tennis. "

The AITA, however, chose to take the high road. In a letter to the Sports Ministry in June, the national tennis body stated: "AITA was informed by Paes sometime last year that he was going to partner Rohan Bopanna in 2012. A few weeks later AITA learnt that instead of Leander and Rohan it was Mahesh and Rohan who were going to partner in 2012. "

What then did that most fair-minded of bodies do? It chose to sit back and watch the fun. After all every time Bhupathi and Paes teed off against each other only AITA won. Divide and rule is the oldest game in the book.

In professional sport, especially in individual disciplines, associations like AITA are mostly redundant factors as far as the pros go, save for a couple of times each year when they flex their muscles in the name of team selection. Given that India's top-tier pros were handed handsome government grants to aid preparation, the players and the association become answerable to the sports ministry and the tax payers whose money is being spent on them. Sit back and watch wasn't an option.

AITA should have acted last November when curiously Paes decided to part ways with Bhupathi after a season in which the Indian Express' reached the Australian Open final, won two Masters events in Miami and Cincinnati besides the Chennai Open and even briefly took over the world No. 1 ranking. Paes chose to break away from that pairing stating he wanted 'younger, fresher legs on the Tour'. And what pray did the 39-year-old achieve with that move? In 14 tournaments (leading up to the Olympics) Paes had 24 match wins, while at the same time in 2011, from a mere nine tournaments he had 21 wins.

Interestingly, in June AITA decided that it was going to be Bhupathi after all who was going to pair with Paes at the Olympics. Why couldn't that decision have been made in November? Had AITA weighed in earlier they might have saved another team - Bopanna and his Pakistani partner Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi from parting ways - and had the Bangalorean persisted with Qureshi he might've maintained a top-10 ranking and made the Olympics on his own steam.
The question is: What works? Best player or best team? Is the seventh-best individually ranked doubles player better than the seventh-ranked team in the world? As it turned out, neither worked for India. Not Bhupathi-Bopanna and not Sania-Paes.

Another question. Why did the AITA decide on the Paes-Sania pairing for the mixed doubles in the last instance ? There was no great achievement in the last six months that suggested India's best pairing was Sania and Paes. If anything, it should've been Bhupathi and Sania, given that the duo had won two Grand Slam titles together. Had AITA decided on Sania and Paes earlier the duo could've played the first three Grand Slams of the year together to prepare for the Olympics.
What Indian tennis needs is iron-cast selection norms, where favoritism, personality and petty politics have no place: A set of rules which hold not just for that most difficult batch of 2012, but for generations to come.

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