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Indian tennis needs a Gopichand

Indian tennis has some genuine achievements to its credit. But it has often been short on integrity and good sense, as was evident in the Rohan Bopanna-AITA issue. For it to grow, it needs players and administrators with the uncompromising ethics and credibility of Gopichand.

July 21, 2021 / 08:56 PM IST
There are many Indian badminton players competing at the top level today. Importantly, most of them are humble and are rarely in petty controversies. A lot of the credit for this goes to Pullela Gopichand (above, left).

There are many Indian badminton players competing at the top level today. Importantly, most of them are humble and are rarely in petty controversies. A lot of the credit for this goes to Pullela Gopichand (above, left).

If bickering were an Olympic sport, Indian tennis players and administrators would win many medals. The incident involving Rohan Bopanna and the All India Tennis Association (AITA) a few days ago proved this once again.

The AITA may have been unclear to Bopanna regarding the chances of his participation in Tokyo, but to say they “misled” him, to quote Bopanna, is harsh. The recording of an alleged phone call between Bopanna and AITA secretary-general Anil Dhupar, which Bopanna tweeted and then deleted,  shows that while Dhupar wrongly expressed optimism over Bopanna’s entry, he did not make any promises.

“Keep your fingers crossed, maybe we get some good news tomorrow," Dhupar says during the call.

Further on, he says, “I am saying that I am expecting some good news tomorrow, be ready, that’s all."

Towards the end of the conversation, Bopanna asks him, “ITF has accepted that (his entry along with Sumit Nagal)?”

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Dhupar replies, “they have accepted the nomination".

Does accepting nomination equate to confirmed entry? It’s open to debate. The transcript, if genuine, shows that yes, Dhupar was vague, but he also said, twice, that he was “expecting” the good news “tomorrow”. In other words, nothing was confirmed at the time of the call. As a player with nearly two decades of experience, Bopanna should have understood this.

Instead, we had another spat in the great Indian tennis tradition. And we wonder why people and sponsors gravitate towards cricket.

Indian cricket is not 100% clean. But it has two important things going for it. India is good at it. And the game is extremely popular. And so its shady dimensions do not matter in the big picture. Indian cricket is like a first world country. Politicians are creepy there too, but those countries perform. They provide their people with a high standard of life and satisfaction. The nations do well in sports and other competitions. Cops and ambulances arrive at your door in seconds if you call them.

Non-cricket sports in India, however, do not always tick the two key boxes cricket does. The main thing most of them lack is Indians performing at the top level. Half the credibility of a sport comes from that. In such a case, the audience may not always be as much as cricket, but it will be a dedicated audience and the respect for those athletes will be genuine. Vishy Anand and chess is an example.

There is a reason badminton has done well in India in the last two decades. It produced players like P. Gopichand, Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth, to name just four, who were world-beaters in singles. There are many other players who are competing at the top level today. Importantly, most of them are humble and are rarely in petty controversies.

A lot of credit goes to Gopichand. He may have been stubborn at times, or had his biases. But these are minor flaws in an extremely principled and dedicated man. Not only did he win the 2001 All-England as a player, he set up an academy and developed dozens of players, including the likes of Saina and Sindhu. His days started before sunrise, he refused a cola commercial, he does not touch alcohol or dessert and never compromises on his values.

Indian tennis has had some fine achievements. Ramanathan Krishnan reached the Wimbledon semifinals twice in the 1960s. India reached the Davis Cup final twice, in 1974 and 1987. The competition was then almost on par with global football tournaments in terms of its scope and prestige. Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan were top-25 players, who won 16 and 8 singles titles, respectively, and could defeat the best in the world on their day.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi won the 1999 Wimbledon crown. It can’t be forgotten that both also played several quality singles matches, especially in Davis Cup. Paes won an Olympic singles bronze too. Sania Mirza and her family poured time and energy in building an improbable career for an Indian Muslim girl in women’s tennis, and she responded by fearlessly taking on the likes of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in the biggest arenas of the world. She also reached world No. 1 in women’s doubles and no. 27 in singles.

Bopanna partnered Pakistan's Aisam Qureshi to reach the 2010 US Open final, and in the process demonstrated before an international audience that two people from these warring lands could actually be teammates.

But there has been far too much ugliness too.

The feud between Paes and Bhupathi grew to an extent that today it overshadows their victories. It’s tragicomic that an upcoming web series on them is titled ‘Breakpoint’. It also created camps in Indian tennis. In 2008, Bhupathi, Bopanna, Prakash Amritraj and Karan Rastogi even wrote to the AITA, saying they did not want to play under Paes.

Bhupathi suffered ignominies as well. A 2007 coaching scheme with Apollo Tyres, that made a grandiose promise of producing an Indian singles Grand Slam winner by 2018, whimpered away after barely two years. He attributed the failure to the 2008 recession and Apollo wanting to see faster results for their proposed Rs 100 crore investment.

Nearly as short-lived as the Apollo ‘Mission 2018’ was Bhupathi’s star-studded, IPL-style tennis competition, the IPTL. Against many odds, he managed to get superstars such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for the event. But after some initial response, it failed to attract spectators. Worse, it defaulted on payments to the tune of about $5 million to some players, TV producers and vendors. The reason, Bhupathi said, was he was duped out of about $8 million by one Legendari Group, one of the franchise owners.

But the reputation of Indian tennis took a beating. And with the Bopanna-AITA blow-up, it has done so once more. AITA may not have been the culprit this time, but it has been at fault on many occasions in the past. Likewise, players have not always been the helpless victims they have sometimes portrayed themselves as. Both sides need to look at their priorities and motivations, and, if they truly love their game and the nation, put performance, ethics and growth of the sport at the top of that list. Having a chat with Gopichand will be a start.
Akshay Sawai

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