On the verge of being the only tennis player in history to play in six Olympics, Leander Paes threatened to withdraw from the London Games, if the All India Tennis Association (AITA) selected a lower-ranked partner for him, while allowing Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna to form a second team, as he strongly expressed his concern in a letter to the AITA here on Wednesday.
Having arrived at a conclusion after a lot of deliberations past midnight on Tuesday and further this morning, the AITA had actually alerted the media this afternoon that it would announce the Indian tennis team for the Olympics at 5.30 p.m.
However, as the letter from Paes completely took the AITA by surprise, a meeting of the selectors was hurriedly convened this evening, even as the AITA announced that the team would be revealed only on Thursday afternoon, hours before the final deadline of making Olympic entries to the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
Stating that he would be happy to play with the next best player if Bhupathi and Bopanna refused to play with him, Paes categorically stated that it would not be acceptable for him that the two revolting players were to be allowed to compete in the Olympics as another team.
“It would not be acceptable, if with my ranking as the best Indian tennis player, I give up the best option of partner for winning a medal for my country and am made to play the Olympics with a player ranked 207/306 in the world while the No. 13 and No. 15-ranked players form another team together based on their refusal to play with me,” said Paes in the letter addressed to the secretary of the AITA, Bharat Oza.
Bopanna and Bhupathi were ranked No.12 and No.14 in the rankings released on the cut-off date for the Olympics.
“If this is the case, then for the sake of Indian tennis and to relieve the AITA with regard to the selection of the team, I have no other option but to withdraw from the Olympics,” stated Paes, even as he suggested that the fielding of a second team in such circumstances would set a bad example.
“'This decision is not taken lightly and with any rancour. We cannot be condoning or rewarding the drama enacted by Mahesh and Rohan. This would be a bad precedent for current and future sports persons (particularly tennis players) in our country,” he said in the letter.
Arguing further, Paes mentioned that he was part of the No. 1-ranked team in the world and ranked No.7 individually, for the first six months of the year, and thus had the right of entry and the choice of partner.
“'I would also bring to your notice that Sania and I, by virtue of our combined ranking of No. 19, have got a direct entry in the mixed doubles at the Olympics,” he claimed.
However, the rules specify that the mixed doubles draw, with a field of 16 teams and 12 direct entries, would be made only in London from among the players assembled for the Olympics.
Paes said that representing India at the Olympics was a cherished dream, and he had agreed to participate “unconditionally,” with the understanding that efforts would be made towards fielding the best team, targeting a medal.
Having fought on similar lines all along, projecting the case of Paes strongly, the AITA was stumped when it had apparently reconciled to the reality of fielding the players who had qualified for the Games.
Bhupathi and Bopanna have consistently argued that they were No. 7 in the world as a team, and No. 3 in terms of both the players belonging to the same country, and thus deserved to be the first choice of the men's doubles event for India in the Olympics.
They had said that it would be counter-productive to break a combination after all the hard preparations for six months, when they had sacrificed their professional career, putting the Olympics as priority. They had voiced together that they would play the Olympics as a pair or not at all.