Players vs AITA: Controversies, Lofty Approach Leave Bitter Taste
AITA seems reluctant to give up a high-handed approach to the task of dealing with players and their concerns.
It has not been even 48 hours since the International Tennis Federation (ITF) decided to accede to the Indian players’ concerns over playing the Davis Cup tie against Pakistan in Islamabad, moving it to a neutral venue.
Instead of calming things down in the Indian camp, the decision has sparked a fresh, unseemly battle between players and tennis officialdom.
It is not the first time that All India Tennis Association (AITA) is squaring up against players. And, by the looks of it, this will not be the last time either.
AITA seems reluctant to give up a high-handed approach to the task of dealing with players and their concerns. This time, Rohan Bopanna’s shock at Mahesh Bhupathi’s exclusion as non-playing captain riled up AITA.
It does not take much to recall that it has been at loggerheads with players many a times, not the least when it accused Ramesh Krishnan of playing a Davis Cup tie for money despite being injured.
Ramesh joined a bunch of players AITA had alienated – his own father Ramanathan Krishnan, Naresh Kumar and the Amritraj brothers, Vijay and Anand.
For long, AITA did precious little to douse the raging fire, caused by the divide between Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. More recently, Somdev Devvarman slammed AITA for its handling of Sumit Nagal when he was not part of the Davis Cup squad after making his debut against Spain in Chandigarh in 2016.
Somewhere in Chennai, Ramesh Krishnan could be chuckling to himself.
Many years ago, he had identified the problem: While everywhere else, tennis was performance based, in India it depended on whether a player is in the good books of the establishment.
He may have returned to be non-playing captain for a while, but the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The thread binding all these instances – irrespective of the names of the officials at the helm in each instance – is AITA’s unwillingness to learn lessons in decision-making and, more important, clear communication.
How else can anyone explain the irritable response of AITA secretary Hiranmoy Chatterjee in reportedly asking: “Who is Rohan Bopanna?”
He could easily have picked up the phone to blast Bopanna for expressing his thoughts on the selection of the non-playing captain in public. Or, he could have written a stern mail. Instead, he chose to respond through the media with a statement that is shorn of class, let alone dignity and grace that sport is supposed to bring along.
Instead of relief that the tie has been moved from Islamabad and a sharp focus on picking the best available team for the yet to be decided neutral venue, Indian tennis finds itself in the throes of a controversy. It is divided by camps that are apparently for or against Mahesh Bhupathi as non-playing captain of the team.
It does seem strange that AITA executive committee has decided to retain Chairman of Selectors Rohit Rajpal as non-playing captain. That decision should have been made by the selectors and not the executive committee.
And if the AITA – and whichever committee was involved – decided that Mahesh Bhupathi’s appointment would not be extended, he should have been told that.
Going by Bhupathi’s assertion on Twitter, it would appear that Rohit Rajpal was named the stand-in non-playing captain in his place because he expressed his reservations about travelling to Pakistan. This was before the ITF announced its decision late on Monday, that the tie would be shifted.
The genesis lies in the manner in which AITA went about handling the situation presented by the Davis Cup draw that pitted India against Pakistan.
AITA should have been firm in deciding either to back the players – and forfeit the tie if push came to shove – or tell them to go ahead and play in Pakistan.
Having asked for the tie to be moved from Islamabad citing players’ security concerns, AITA shot itself in the foot by naming a team before ITF made the decision to move the tie from Islamabad. It presented itself with a situation of its own making, one which caused a mess that was entirely avoidable.
After all, the non-playing captain and the players kept telling AITA their apprehensions about security for the tie. Instead of taking a leaf out of the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s book and sending an advance security assessment team to Islamabad to appraise the players of the ground situation, AITA kept dragging its feet and left the decision to ITF.
Had it sent an assessment team that would address the players’ concerns about travelling to Pakistan, AITA would have been justified in leaving out the players who chose to skip the tie if it were to be held as scheduled in Pakistan.
To now say that it would act against such players for refusing to head to Islamabad reeks of poor leadership.
Back in 1989, Indian cricket faced a similar situation – players pitted against officials. With the entire team unwilling to sign a contract ahead of a tour of Pakistan, the Board of Control for Cricket in India had all but named Sandip Patil as captain of a bunch of inexperienced players.
When the crisis blew over, the Board did not exclude the players who were earlier up in arms.
Indeed, every sports federation must pick the best available talent to be a part of the Indian team. Always. AITA can always find other ways of rewarding players who put their hands up, bravely, and made themselves available for selection to play in Pakistan.
By leaving out those who expressed their safety concerns, AITA will only be meting out punishment to fans of Indian tennis.
And yes, no AITA official should ever ask – at least not in public – “Who is he?” about a player. As the parent body, it is expected to tackle situations with grace and dignity and not stoop to such levels even when gravely provoked.
Sports officials (and everyone else in the sports ecosystem) should never ignore that the fact that the player is the centre of their universe.
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