When off-court battles stormed centre-stage

When off-court battles stormed centre-stage

There was very little joy for Indian tennis in 2012 but that didnt stop its lead players from making news

When off-court battles stormed centre-stage

Achievements, controversies and emergence of youth marked the year for Indian tennis. Sadly, 2012 will be most remembered for a row that has come to symbolise the sport in the country.

 It simmered and then exploded, like a volcano, overshadowing the celebrations triggered by the success of Leander Paes winning the Australian Open with new partner Radek Stepanek, followed by the French Open mixed doubles triumph of Sania Mirza  and  Mahesh Bhupathi, in their second Grand Slam together.

India’s preparations of Olympics looked on track but the team selection raised a spate of forgettable developments. Selection and controversies have been inseparable in All India Tennis Association’s scheme before every Olympics and when it decided to pair the fighting icons Paes and Bhupathi for the men’s doubles at London, hell broke loose.

Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna had been playing together on the circuit for some  time with an eye on the London Olympics. AITA refused to acknowledge it. Bhupathi and later Bopanna refused to partner Paes and the matters reached the corridors of the sports ministry. Days of uncertainty followed, but what disappointed fans was how two of India’s greatest athletes resorted to mud-slinging in public. It only damaged their reputation of being brand ambassadors for Indian tennis.

A furious Bhupathi accused Paes of “backstabbing” him and called the decision to partner him the “worst possible” in the interest of the country. Paes kept a low profile but threatened not to play if not paired with a partner of his choice. He was, after all, the highest ranked doubles player in India. Paes initially refused to partner a youngster but later toned down his stance.

As the debate raged over the clash of egos, AITA, after fresh deliberations, revised the team selection, in which it partnered Paes with greenhorn Vishnu Vardhan, keeping the Bopanna-Bhupathi pairing intact. It also sought to placate a disappointed Paes with a promise that he would  partner Sania Mirza for the mixed doubles. A peeved Sania then blasted the AITA for using her as “bait” to appease Paes.

In such a volatile environment, it was hardly surprising that none of the pairs were able to cross the second hurdle at the Olympics. Vishnu, though, emerged the unlikely hero with his inspired performance against Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Michael Llodra. Tsonga was gracious when he congratulated the young Indian on his performance.

Back home after Olympics, AITA was quick to swing to action. It dropped Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupathi from the Davis Cup tie against New Zealand for indiscipline. Paes, too, opted out. In the backdrop of the drama, the young guns, comprising Yuki Bhambri, Sanam Singh, Vishnu and Divij Sharan steadily rose at the challenger level. Yuki won his maiden challenger title in singles and Sharan, with two finals and  eight titles, broke into doubles 100.  Sanam, too, won the futures title and  made it to the quarterfinals of the some of the challenger events.

Collectively, they whitewashed the touring New Zealand 5-0 in the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Zone tie but they still have a long way to go.

Moments after their victory, Bhupathi and Bopanna were banned for two years. Interestingly though, it is yet to be known that under what rule AITA  decided to take such an action.

Bhupathi, for whom 2013, will be last year on the circuit, took on AITA president Anil Khanna, calling him “dictatorial” and moved court, which stayed the order on the ban.
Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna capped their last year as a pair by reaching the final of the ATP World Tour Finale in London. In the coming year, Bopanna will be partnering Rajeev Ram and Bhupathi Daniel Nestor. His future with the national team remains uncertain.

The return of injured Somdev Devvarman to the competitive fold after 10 months was a welcome one, though he didn’t achieve anything of note on the court. As for women’s tennis, Sania continues to be the lone flame, keeping up her performance in doubles. Though her decision to stop playing singles created a stir, by the end of the year she was “tempted” to reconsider her decision.

Indian men's tennis, though, continues to be in transition. The New Zealand tie was more of a formal ceremony of passing the baton. The coming years will test its endurance.