Nothing changes. Leander Paes is on the brink of yet another world record. Indian tennis continues to be shrouded in confusion and controversy.
Two days before Paes goes for the record of most doubles wins in Davis Cup, he had to further fine tune his game for a new partner. Saketh Myneni was supposed to play with Paes in the doubles rubber during the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I Round I tie against New Zealand in Pune but had to pull out of the tie on Wednesday evening due to a foot injury. Vishnu Vardhan, who ended up playing doubles with Paes after the 2012 London Olympics controversy, will thus step in to support Leander in his record bid.
“I think Vishnu and I are bound by destiny,” said Paes, sporting a leaner look and a well-groomed beard, on the eve of the Davis Cup tie against New Zealand. “I have always said that I will put my best foot forward for the country, and that stays the same even with world record on the line.”
After Myneni pulled out, India’s top-ranked doubles player Rohan Bopanna had been contacted but he refused to come to Pune for the tie despite being in Bangalore. Bopanna’s refusal comes on the back of a scathing attack he had launched on the All India Tennis Association (Aita) for dropping him from the New Zealand tie even though he was the country’s top-ranked doubles player. India had instead decided to pick Paes to give him a shot at the world record as the only doubles player, in a squad of four.
“Bopanna was contacted,” said India’s non-playing captain Anand Amritraj after the draw ceremony on Thursday morning. “Three people from the team/Aita spoke with him.”
But Amritraj, who is also set to hand over the reigns to Mahesh Bhupathi after the New Zealand tie, refused to elaborate on the conversations. Instead he said he was happy to have Vardhan in the squad, as “it’s better to have someone who really wants to be here.” The team informed that India’s best singles bet Yuki Bhambri had agreed to play the doubles rubber, and hence all three days of the tie, if required.
Bopanna and Paes have had a fractious relationship over the years. In 2008, he along with the second singles player at the time, Prakash Amritraj, told Aita they would not be available for selection if Paes continued as the playing captain. The 2012 London Olympics controversy, possibly the ugliest, centered around Bopanna and Bhupathi refusing to play with Paes in the men’s doubles. The Rio Games brought its own troubles as Bopanna and Paes were forced to play with each other, lost in the first round and were involved in a very public spat.
Zeeshan Ali, the Indian team coach, and Paes were seen talking to Bopanna on court after the Wednesday evening practice, when it was confirmed that Myneni would be unavailable for the tie. Paes was also the first one to make a call to Vardhan to check whether he would be fit, available and ready to play against New Zealand.
“I was happy to make the first call to Rohan as well, but I was told not to,” said Paes.
It will be another short little restart for Paes to get in the groove for the record. Vardhan has a big serve and a good support game to help the 43-year-old achieve it.
Paes is currently tied at a win-loss record of 42-12 with Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli in Davis Cup doubles. He might not currently be the player that made him such an icon in Cup ties, but he has been Indian tennis’, and Indian sports’, over achiever and the word record will seal his place in history.
“Do I think I have overachieved?” contemplates Paes, in an interview on Wednesday.
“As an athlete, I know I am a supreme athlete, so there I would say no. Am I surprised that I’m still playing? No, because I know how much hard work I have put in. Talent-wise, yes. I don’t have a huge serve, my backhand is not technically, conventionally sound.
“The thrill of creating records, it keeps you going on the hard days. It shows the hard work and longevity of one’s career. It’s about writing history books by pushing your own benchmark. Writing the history books, its coming faster than I think it would. It’s nice to put India on the map, on world records.”
The Aita has earlier hinted that it could also be Paes’ last Davis Cup tie, given that he is not getting any younger and currently there are three players (Bopanna at 28, Divij Sharan 60 and Purav Raja 63) are better ranked than him. But Paes, who has got himself back into incredible shape, doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.
“The longevity is something I’m most proud about. I have realised I have a very deep resolve. Since the time I was travelling alone, sleeping in locker rooms, trying to prove myself that I belong on the pro tour, it’s been a long journey. I have nothing to prove to anyone anymore. I play because I love to play, because I can. I have run my race for so long, and I will do it on my terms.”
The controversies in doubles have started feeling like a recurring nightmare. And it looks uglier since India does not have even one player in the top-100 in singles.
“It is ridiculous that a country of India’s does not have a single player in the top-150,” says Anand Amritraj, the out-going captain of the Indian Davis Cup team. “Yuki (Bhambri) has been part of the top-100 but unfortunately had been plagued with injury. Saketh (Myneni) has the ability too. But even I’m baffled as to why we haven’t been able to produce a consistently top-class singles player since Ramesh Krishnan.”
Amritraj has spent three years shepherding a young squad and had managed to bring some harmony in Indian tennis. But he is all set to empty the non-playing captain’s chair after the New Zealand tie.
“They (Aita) still hasn’t given me reason of why I have to leave,” the flamboyant Amritraj said. Between India’s last Davis Cup tie against Spain, and the one over the coming weekend, a lot has happened. There have been charges of not maintaining discipline, but the only reason the Aita has publicly mentioned is that they want to give “everyone a chance.”
India weren’t quite able to break through into the World Group during his reign, but the 64-year-old seems to have got the best out of the squad given to him. They won matches they were supposed to, and the away win over Korea will remain the biggest triumph under his captaincy.
And Amritraj would be harbouring hopes of a winning farewell. On paper, India are a far superior side in the Pune tie, which will be played under lights. New Zealand’s top-ranked singles player is Finn Tearney at 414 and the second singles player is Jose Statham, at 417. India, meanwhile, are better placed with Ramkumar Ramanathan at 276 and Bhambri at 368, and are looking for a clean sweep in the four singles rubbers.
In Artem Sitak and Michael Venus, New Zealand have a doubles duo that has the experience and guile to cause the Indians—Paes and Vardhan—some anxious moments. They are much higher ranked, with Venus at 36 and Sitak at 56, and doubles could prove a tipping point of the tie if New Zealand are able to take it to the Indians on the first day and win even one of their singles rubbers.
A win against New Zealand will take them just one step forward in this season’s campaign. But with no singles player still ready to challenge the big boys of tennis, it will be near-impossible for India to break into the elite 16-team Davis Cup World Group. Paes might well be able to notch up the 43rd win and reach another memorable mark in Pune. It will take much longer for India to get out of the Asia/Oceania Group I or the trenches of discontent.