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Federation plans, Mahesh Bhupathi executes

Leander Paes never stood a chance once AITA handed new captain full authority over team selection, observes Rohan Sharma.

Published: 09th April 2017 02:40 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th April 2017 02:59 AM   |  A+A-

12-time Grand Slam champion Mahesh Bhupathi (File|AFP)

Express News Service

In the cinematic medium, it’s common to come across certain films that, despite poor reception and returns, produce sequels that nobody cares about. Sometimes, this doesn’t stop at one and keeps going, till people are fed up.

Sport, sometimes, has retreads of similar quality. Take the latest Davis Cup selection drama written and directed by India skipper Mahesh Bhupathi, where Leander Paes was left out at the eleventh hour, ahead of the tie against Uzbekistan. If one had to award it a grade, this sloppily produced effort by the All India Tennis Association would only qualify as a turkey.

Once one does away with the facetious references, a more sinister overall plan comes into view — AITA and Bhupathi are working in tandem to bring the curtain down on Paes’ Davis Cup career. Given Bhupathi’s hostility towards Paes, what else was going to achieved by giving the former authority over the latter?

From being the best doubles team in 1999, the duo’s story eventually became one of increasing bad blood. Be it leading a revolt against Paes’ captaincy in 2008 or the 2012 London Olympics fiasco, Bhupathi never shied away from getting back at his old mate.

When Bhupathi was announced as skipper last December, the first thought was that of Damocles’ sword hanging over Paes’ head. At long last, Bhupathi’s chance to get even had arrived and the sole missing piece of the puzzle was how he would go about it.

When Bhupathi picked an all-singles team and placed Paes and Rohan Bopanna in reserve slots, some experts felt it was a smokescreen. Even injuries to Yuki Bhambri and potential replacement Vishnu Vardhan, couldn’t force Bhupathi to break character. But this choreographed performance reinforced the idea that something diabolical was afoot.

Consequently, Bhupathi’s treatment of Paes was nothing short of despicable. The latter has represented the nation in Davis Cup since his debut in 1989. He has spilt his guts on the court in singles — against Grand Slam icons no less — and doubles. And then, there’s the Olympic singles bronze and 18 Majors he owns.

So when the 43-year-old was busy busting every sinew in Leon (10 hours 30 minutes behind India time), a courtesy call saying he wouldn’t be considered could’ve done the trick. Paes did all he could and still failed to make the cut, which proves the hypothesis established earlier: Bhupathi knew from the beginning that he wouldn’t play Paes.

Bhupathi could’ve had the decency to communicate his intentions to Paes beforehand but that would’ve prevented the humiliation he was targeting. That Bhupathi chose to bring Paes in and keep him hanging speaks volumes about his mindset.

“It was handled badly. I don’t believe Mahesh waited until Wednesday. He had made up his mind two weeks or even a month ago. It should have been made clear to Leander that Rohan had a better chance. That way, Leander could’ve continued playing on tour. To bring him in on a weak premise was lousy,” former skipper Anand Amritraj told Express.

It is surprising that AITA took a backseat and let Bhupathi axe Paes, something that could not have happened without their approval. In fact, for the longest time, it was assumed the federation would stick with Paes till he broke Nicola Pietrangeli’s record of 42 wins. The previous tie against New Zealand, where he was picked over Bopanna, being a case in point.

Earlier this year, AITA secretary general Hironmoy Chatterjee said he had spoken to Paes informally on retirement, before adding that AITA would give him an opportunity to decide. Obviously, they didn’t because when they appointed Bhupathi, the writing was clearly on the wall.

Bhupathi’s elevation was deliberate because who else would have the guts to execute such a plan without batting an eyelid? In that regard, his selection was a body blow to Paes’ hopes. “It’s the captain’s prerogative to pick the squad. Whatever he has done, the federation accepts it and stands by his choice,” Chatterjee told this newspaper. That’s exactly why Bhupathi was chosen.
If a national treasure like Paes can be treated this way, what hope is there for lesser mortals? It’s a query AITA and Bhupathi need to answer for the sake of the nation’s sport-loving public.

rohan@newindianexpress.com

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