Those of us invested in sport- fans, journalists or just casual observers- are given to a smattering of hyperbole. We sing robustly along when our teams line up for the national anthem. We like the extravagant headlines that equate sportsmen with troops, tournaments with battles and defeat with catastrophes. Sport really doesn't mean as much as we convince ourselves to believe. But the hyperbole is a necessary indulgence as it adds a kind of grandeur to what is an athletic accomplishment, no more.
Watching the tawdry battle for spots on the Indian men's tennis doubles team for the Olympics unravel, I wonder if our sportsmen are using the hyperbole as a shield. Consumed by angst, animosity and the bitter rivalry among them; are Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna hiding behind this populist theme of 'serving the nation', when all they are serving are their own inflated egos?
In justifying their decision to rebuff the opportunity to partner Paes, Bhupathi and Bopanna masterfully buttress their argument: "We believe that ignoring a combination that is fully committed, dedicated and prepared is an unjustifiable compromise. To not send one of the best tennis teams in the world to the Olympics - and to, instead, choose to nominate one that has had four previous unsuccessful attempts fails to put the interests of the nation first".
I wonder how this is about 'nation first' and individual ambition later. At the home stretch of a decorated career, is an Olympic medal a feather that Bhupathi is searching for his own cap or as some sort of 'gift to his country'? Why is he insisting that the 'nation will not be served' if he is asked to pair with a man he has won Grand Slams with and been ranked number one in the world with? Both have won Slams this year- Paes, the men's doubles at the Australian open and Bhupathi, the mixed doubles at the French Open. They have won titles at Wimbledon, where the Olympics Tennis event will be played, as a combination and with different partners. Between them they have 25 Grand Slam titles. On the big stage, these men know how to get it done. At 32, Bopanna is a journeyman with a modest record that is unlikely to get much better.
While you can make the argument about the merits of a Paes-Bhupathi combination, the purpose here is not to do that. Not having seen them play enough together, I can anyway not claim to have an informed opinion on the matter. And as professional Tennis players, they are clearly better suited to make decisions based on form, fitness and their chemistry as a pairing. My issue is with their high-handed rejection of the process of selecting a team to represent India. Bhupathi and Bopanna, as well as Paes have sent a clear message: rubber stamp our way or forget the medal. The nation's medal!
In their first e-mail to the All India Tennis Association Bhupathi and Bopanna asked to be considered for selection as a 'doubles team only' and not as 'individual players'. While each sport has its own dynamic, transfer this scenario to the selection of a cricket team. What if Virender Sehwag were to write to the national selectors to consider him as opener only if Gautam Gambhir was his partner? Would it be acceptable if Zaheer Khan said he is available to operate with the new ball only if Ishant Sharma shares it with him? Entire e-mail exchange between Bopanna-Bhupathi & AITA is here.
For a moment, let's put ourselves in the shoes of the selection panel of the Tennis Association. If in their considered view, Bhupathi and Paes were the ideal combination ON the tennis court, what are they to do? Ignore their own instinct and go by the passionate pleas of the players involved? Would they be honest to their jobs if they were to do so? If a representation made by the players on their own behalf is adequate then why have selectors at all? If the players influence a selection today, what is to stop this from becoming a standard practice in the future? What can then come in the way of a Somdev Devvarman for instance saying he will play Davis cup only if Sanam Singh is also included in the squad?
In team sport, and doubles tennis is a team sport, it isn't unusual for colleagues to be at loggerheads. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were a devastating bowling pair for Pakistan but didn't speak with each other for years. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna drove on the same Formula One team with success despite overt disdain for each other. In fact, Paes and Bhupathi for all their animosity have produced jaw-dropping, chest-thumping performances almost on cue in Davis cup ties and Asian Games. So if in the view of the selectors, THEY were the combination with the best chance to win an Olympic medal that should have been game, set and match.
It is abundantly evident that the driving force behind this tardy episode is anything but national interest. Having failed to lobby successfully to have their way, each of these men is now involved in brinksmanship to arm-twist the authorities. Paes' father made an equally fervent plea on his behalf before the selection committee met. His e-mail painstakingly points to Leander's 'unconditional' representation for India since 1990 and presents a litany of statistics, most of which are irrelevant in the current scenario. Complete text of Vece Paes' e-mail to AITA is here.
Vece Paes made the argument that since 'Leander is the only Indian player, male or female, in the top 10 of the rankings, thus qualifying him for a direct entry with the option of choosing his partner', he should be allowed to do so. So Leander Paes is convinced that he has done enough to be one half of the doubles combination and must now be allowed to pick the other half. Once again, he expects the process of selection be a mere side-show to the whims of his stardom.
Look though at Paes' 'unconditional' service to Indian Tennis in recent months. Knowing well that this was an Olympic year, he dumped Bhupathi as his partner at the start of the season. Paes believed that as an ageing combination they will struggle to keep up with the best teams in the world. Now in the competitive world of professional tennis, this is a sensible decision. Earnings on the circuit are dependent on how far you get in tournaments. The further you go the more prize money you make and so it is only logical that you pick a partner who can ensure greater success.
But if Paes was so keen on 'unconditional' service to the nation, why did he not stick with Bhupathi till the end of the Olympics? Or attempt to arrive at an agreement with Bhupathi that they would revive their combination a couple of months before the games began so they could practice and prepare? In the 'service of the nation', so what if a few thousand dollars were lost or a few defeats had to be endured? The larger goal for the year was the medal, wasn't it?
Once Paes took his decision, Bhupathi went in search of a new partner and found Bopanna. Who also happened to be Indian and a close friend. They adjusted to each other's playing styles, won a title, made a few semi-finals, beat a few established pairs and reached number 7 in the world. Paes now believes his ranking gives him the right to disrupt a combination that has found its feet after sustained effort.
Paes also wants the right to pick a partner of his choice for the Olympics which would leave one of Bhupathi or Bopanna in the cold. His father's e-mail pleads, 'All the best teams including the top singles players will be playing men's doubles at the Olympics and hence we should put up our best team". The implication is clear: The best team is Leander Paes and whoever he chooses out of Bopanna and Bhupathi, who by the way are an existing team that competes on the circuit day in and day out!
It is quite clear that none of this is about 'serving the nation'. As pointed out by the National Sports Editor of the Hindustan Times Sukhwant Basra, if playing for India was the ultimate goal at all times why did these players choose to miss the Asian Games to participate in the season ending Masters tournament last year? Bopanna, waxing eloquent now about the 'privilege and opportunity to represent the country', had a genuine chance at winning more than one medal in the absence of Paes and Bhupathi. But he chose, perhaps correctly, the more high profile tournament instead. These are professional sportsmen with clearly defined career goals. An Olympics medal is clearly among those, but they want a shot at it on their own terms.
Let me indulge in some pop-psychology to wrap this up. Abhinav Bindra's fascinating book is called 'My obsessive journey to Olympic Gold'. He didn't feel compelled to title it 'My obsessive journey to Olympic Gold-FOR INDIA'. He was in the journey for himself. The 'service to the nation' was a by-product of his devotion to his craft. It doesn't need constant emphasis and he must be admired for not succumbing to the rhetoric. Sportsmen aren't soldiers on a war front. Yes, their achievements lift our collective spirits. A medal does have its allure. But go easy on the hyperbole. Win it for yourself, not for us...we will relish it when it comes along!