Monday, July 2, 2012

Finally, tennis too falls from grace, but Sania takes a civilised stand

Cricket was a gentlemen's game. We turned it into a game of fixers and philanderers. Tennis was a game of excellence where individuals displayed the strength of their character and the charm of their civilisation. We are turning it into an ego theatre, incompetent officials providing the props. We seem to have a special talent to turn anything we touch into dirt.

Cricket may have gone beyond redemption. The money has become so big that the politicians will never let go of it. Which means the game can never rise above the sordid coalition dharma of Sharad Pawar, Arun Jaitley and Rajiv Shukla, the brooding spirit of Lalit Modi looming behind them. Badminton is in the clutches of administrative pharisees who threw out the likes of Prakash Padukone; it is saved from ruin only by the gutsiness of a Jwala Gutta and the innocence of a Saina Nehwal. Athletics is in the doldrums, officials often outnumbering athletes on tours and cornering all the goodies. In all sports arenas, politicians prosper, players don't.

Tennis has a noble pedigree which makes its fall from grace particularly sad. Ramanathan Krishnan, Premjit Lal, Jaideep Mukherjee and Vijay Amritraj were gentlemen's gentlemen – on court and off it. Amritraj, a master of public relations, was known as “Mr Nice Guy”. In fact every one of them was Mr Nice Guy, never succumbing to John McEnroe kind of tantrums or Serena Williams type dramatics. They did not win the grandslams, but they won admiration for their sportsmanship.

Leander Paes won many crowns, but hardly the respect of his team mates. In 2008 four Davis Cup players refused to carry on if Paes remained the captain. Their main complaint was that he played to get all the credit for himself and did not show the team spirit expected of a captain. Rohan Bopanna was one of the four. Another, Prakash Amritraj, said of Paes: “This man has taken the joy away from playing the Davis Cup”. Has he also taken the joy out of playing in the Olympics? Following Mahesh Bhupathi's refusal to partner Paes in London, the Tennis Association tried to move Vishnu Vardhan as Paes' partner. Paes was initially contemptuous of the idea because Vardhan was ranked 206. When Paes was a low-ranked junior, the reigning Ramesh Krishnan had welcomed him as a partner and encouraged him. The culture has changed.

Not that Mahesh Bhupathi is a saint in saint's robes. He and Leander Paes made the best doubles team in the history of Indian tennis, but never were two sportsmen more unsportsmanlike in their attitude to each other – not even Harbhajan Singh and Sreeshanth. And never did any other sportsmen have such dominating fathers controlling things. Harbhajan's father didn't appear on television to explain why his son slapped Sreeshanth. Nor did Sreeshanth's father issue a statement explaining why his son cried.

But we have Paes senior demanding that Sania Mirza give a written undertaking to partner Leander in mixed doubles at the Olympics if Leander is to partner the lower-ranked Vishnu Vardhan in the men's doubles. In this low-ranked display of oneupmanship, the most graceful performance was Sania Mirza's. She had the dignity to say that, although she preferred Mahesh Bhupathi, she was ready to partner Leander Paes in the larger interests of the country.

She said more. She said it all in a wisely worded and beautifully crafted statement. She recalled her winning a silver for India in the 2010 Asian Games in partnership with Vishnu Vardhan. She told Leander that Vishnu would go one better if he were teamed up with someone as good as Leander. And she said: “What I find disillusioning is the humiliating manner in which I was put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis … This kind of blatant humiliation of Indian womanhood needs to be condemned even if it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country”.

Bravo, Sania.