The latest Leader Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi fracas that played out over the weekend to the point of overshadowing India advancing to the Davis Cup World Group Play-offs is, if not anything else, a clear reflection of the poor management of the country’s tennis establishment.
AITA secretary-general Hironmoy Chatterjee asking India’s senior player and the non-playing captain to “behave in a much more mature matter” rang akin to a school teacher reproaching two kindergarten kids for fighting over who will get on the playground slide first.
“Leander should not have spoken when the tie was on. Mahesh did the right thing by speaking after the tie was over,” Chatterjee was quoted as saying, for whatever it was worth. Paes is 43 years of age and Bhupathi 42, and their acrimonious feuds in public over the years have outrun their remarkable achievements together both on Tour and for the country.
Bhupathi and Paes, a former world No. 1 pair, won three grand slam doubles titles together between 1999 and 2001, and have had a turbulent relationship since. Known as the ‘Indian Express’, they sporadically partnered subsequently, primarily while representing the country, but rarely without a showdown at the start or at the end of the campaigns.
Feuds of the past
Paes had slammed Bhupathi with “he needs to be honest with himself, the way he’s playing, the way his career is going and also with his responsibility to the team” after a preliminary round defeat to Chinese Taipei before winning the doubles gold at the 2006 Asian Games. Bhupathi later said he’d never again partner Paes, an Olympic singles bronze medallist in 1996.
In February 2008, Bhupathi backed a revolt against Paes by younger Davis Cup teammates who had threatened to boycott a Cup tie against Japan unless Paes was replaced as captain. AITA backed Cup stalwart Paes and urged the two to play together on Tour to prepare for that year’s Olympics in Beijing.
In April the same year, Paes said he regretted teaming up with Bhupathi when he should have instead focused on his singles career. “Opting to play doubles with Mahesh was probably the worst decision of my playing career,” Paes said. “Now, when I look back, I regret the fact that I sacrificed my singles career for him.
“I had won the Pilot Pen International hardcourt tournament beating the top players of the world, including Pete Sampras, and reached (a) world ranking of 73 in 1998,” he said.
In May that year, Bhupathi gave Paes the Beijing Games brush-off, saying he’d prefer to play along with Davis Cup teammate Rohan Bopanna as Paes had no plans to play with him on the Tour in the build-up to the Games.
“I’m not willing to go into the Olympics under-prepared and I have made this clear to the AITA,” Bhupathi said. “If the AITA doesn’t want to take things seriously, then they can do whatever they like. If they (AITA) don’t want to respect my opinion, what can I say, it’s their decision. They can field whichever team they want, or none at all.”
The duo turned out together at Beijing and lost in the quarterfinals to the Swiss pair of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. The ‘Indian Express’ came together briefly in 2011, but in the London Olympics the following year, AITA relented to Bhupathi and Bopanna’s demands of not wanting to partner Paes and fielded two men’s doubles pairs with Paes partnering Vishnu Vardhan.
At the Rio Olympics last year, Paes and Bopanna lost in the opening round in men’s doubles.
Given the bad blood between the two stars of Indian tennis, there was always going to be another one coming after it was announced that Bhupathi would succeed Anand Amritraj as Davis Cup non-playing captain following the New Zealand tie in February.
In fact, asked during the announcement in December if the elevation of Bhupathi as non-playing captain would be end of the road in Davis Cup for Paes, Chatterjee had said, “We will cross that bridge when it comes.”
Looking back now it is interesting that Paes had hinted at retirement at the start of the New Year before ruling it out a week later, saying his comments were misread.
“I play for fun now… There will come a point when the curtain comes down. Before the curtain comes down, a big thank you to you all. It’s been a fun run. You guys have been awesome with me for 20 years, so thanks,” he said on the sidelines of the Chennai Open.
The Uzbekistan tie was the first time Paes was dropped from India’s Davis Cup squad in his 27-year long career – he was one win away from becoming the most successful doubles player in Davis Cup history – in what was Bhupathi’s first as non-playing captain.
It could have been handled better had AITA been a little sensitive.
Sanjay Rajan has written on sport for over two decades. He tweets at @SeamUp.