Dubai Thursday’s announcement that the All India Tennis Association (AITA) will send two men’s doubles teams to London may end the suspense over the Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi issue, but it hasn’t stopped the feud dealing a big blow to the image of Indian tennis. The turn of events over the past week has been, to say the least, distasteful and certainly not the best prelude for a good showing from the teams — forget a medal.
It’s been exactly a decade since their first ‘divorce’ in 2002 and both the Paes and Bhupathi camps had often washed their dirty linen in public, but this time the element of mistrust and the communication breakdown between the two seems total.
As the controversy continues to make headlines, I have often been asked what the reason was for such bad blood between the two players who were once famously called the ‘Indian Express’. While egos have certainly played a crucial role in their on-off relationship, it’s the element of mistrust that had crept in over the last few years that seems to have taken its toll.
To the small and somewhat clannish Indian tennis fraternity, the most comfortable existence was that of the duo thriving on the Tour with their respective partners, coming together only for the team events like Davis Cup or the multi-discipline affairs. However, the general perception is that it was Bhupathi who had engineered a coup of sorts against Paes in 2008, with members of the team sending a joint petition to the AITA refusing to play under the captaincy of the latter — something which Paes has never forgotten.
Miraculously enough, Paes and Bhupathi again came together after nine years on the Tour last year — ostensibly with the idea of winning the elusive Australian Open and having a last crack at the Olympics. Results were starting to show, but it soon broke down with Paes walking out of the arrangement and Bhupathi deciding to team up with Rohan Bopanna for the 2012 season.
In an interview with Gulf News late last year, Bhupathi didn’t mince his words on the issue, saying he would rather enjoy his tennis at this stage of his career with a vastly improving Bopanna.
The AITA, despite being in the know, felt that the veterans would be ready to sink their differences one more time while naming them as the doubles team for the Olympics (that after a teleconference with the concerned parties).
It’s unfortunate that such an episode had to unfold in what will be a landmark sixth Olympics for Paes, a feat matched only by Indian shooter Randhir Singh.