New Delhi, July 13
Indian tennis has turned into a soap opera in the lead up to the London Olympics, with insults and accusations of treachery flying and some players openly seething at their doubles partners.
The conflict centers on Leander Paes, Indiaís most recognizable face in tennis to the outside world, but an athlete who has apparently burned bridges with nearly every one of his potential teammates.
Paes became a national hero when he won a singles bronze at the 1996 Games, breaking a 44-year drought of individual Olympic medals for India. At 39, heís still considered one of the countryís best medal hopes as one of the worldís top doubles players.
The problem is, thereís a lack of Indian players wanting to play with him.
He was initially supposed to play in Indiaís only menís double entry with former partner Mahesh Bhupathi , with whom he won 26 doubles titles on the professional tour, including three in Grand Slams.
But Bhupathi, who also has an enviable record in doubles play and was ranked 14th in the world, refused to play with Paes because he had been partnering Rohan Bopanna on the ATP circuit in preparation for the Olympics. Bopanna, ranked 12th in doubles, turned Paes down for the same reason.
Indian tennis officials scrambled to put Bopanna and Bhupathi together as a second doubles entry and partner Paes with 307th-ranked Vishnu Vardhan, whom Paes proceeded to publicly belittle.
"I donít think heís been to Wimbledon before," said Paes, ranked 7th in doubles. "I donít even know if he has grass-court shoes, poor guy."
Paes was so reluctant to play with Vardhan, Indian tennis officials had to sweeten the deal, promising he could play mixed doubles, considered a more realistic medal opportunity, with Indiaís top female player, Sania Mirza.
Mirza, who had just won the French Open mixed doubles with Bhupathi, was not happy.
"As an Indian woman belonging to the 21st century, what I find disillusioning is the humiliating manner in which I was put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis," she said.
Trying to calm the angry Mirza, tennis officials named her mother as a team manager, sending her to London as well.
The conflict between Paes and Bhupathi has been a major talking point in Indian sport, and even five-time world chess champion Viswanathan Anand weighed into the debate this week, saying the affair had been mishandled.
"They have disagreements and thatís normal in a sport. But they should have done it much ahead and done it quietly when thereís time. Itís unpleasant," Anand said.
Veteran sports analyst Ayaz Memon said the divisions in the squad can not be overcome quickly.
"Thereís been so much bad blood, some of itís bound to linger on," he said. "Itís not the best thing to happen, but then the Olympics are a strange event and you might just see people play above their levels."
Former national champion and Davis Cup coach Nandan Bal believes Paesí best chance of a medal is in mixed doubles.
"Thatís where Leander has been doing well. And Sania does not hold back either," he said. "Winning any medal in the Olympics will be huge for India and a gold could do to the game what Abhinav Bindraís gold in rifle shooting did to popularize the sport in this country."
Memon, too, says mixed doubles presents India with the best chance.
"For Paes and Sania, the field might not be as daunting. There have been complications, but if they are able to compartmentalize things and put aside the bickering, thereís a lot of hope."
So, Paes, who has 13 Grand Slam victories in doubles and mixed doubles including three with Bhupathi, remains a medal hope 20 years after he partnered Ramesh Krishnan in menís doubles at Barcelona.
Paesí best chance of a second Olympics medal came in partnership with Bhupathi, when the pair made the bronze medal playoff at Athens in 2004 during one of their many patch-ups. Will he be able to pull off something better this time?
Bal warns that the Olympics environment is completely different to the pro tour. Staging the Olympic event on the iconic lawn tennis courts at Wimbledon, starting July 28, will further enhance the status of the competition.
"Big names the world over donít play in ATP or WTA doubles events. But in the Olympics, every player worth his name will be out there trying to win a medal," Bal said. "It will include players like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It makes the event far tougher. To win a medal would be spectacular."