End of An Era!

Achievements of Paes and Bhupathi, together and individually, are sacrosanct, and can never be forgotten. But Bhupathi seems determined to bring some professionalism to Davis Cup

By DANFES

You know something is wrong when the most exciting part of a Davis Cup day is the press conference.

The focus should have been on the dead rubber games against Uzbekistan, only one of which India won. Instead, the final Davis Cup Press conference featured maybe three questions out of 10 or 12 that were actually about the tie. Instead, it was Mahesh Bhupathi, first time team captain, talking about Leander Paes, one time partner and one-day team member. Unfortunately, it was not an unfamiliar sight.

As far as this tie goes, Paes had accused Bhupathi of personal bias against him, and said that he should have been spared the trouble of coming for the tie if it was apparent that he would not be picked in the final four. It was something that Bhupathi was asked about on day two of the tie, after India sealed the result 3-0. But the captain chose to focus on questions about the match instead. On April 9th, with the tie done and dusted, he finally broke his silence.

Seemingly tired of the speculation ‘who said what’ comments tend to stir up in the media, Bhupathi offered proof. He shared with the media screenshots of his WhatsApp conversations with Paes, which clearly showed that Paes had confirmed he would be happy to join the team if he was included in the six man squad, with the final four to be decided before the draw.

While this did lay bare some of the truth in the matter, Bhupathi has set a very dangerous precedent. WhatsApp messages come with end-to-end encryption for a reason: privacy. The public sharing of WhatsApp messages sits right up there with the leaking of classified defense documents, at least in social media etiquette. With one stroke, Bhupathi has ensured that every Indian tennis player in future will think twice before pressing send on even the most innocuous chat.

And yet it was Paes who had forced his hand, by claiming that form was not a criterion for selection, and personal bias was involved. “When I got here yesterday morning for practice, I was hitting and feeling the ball very well. The criteria was supposed to be form, which obviously doesn’t seem to be the case”, said Paes. Paes had just claimed a win in an ATP Challenger in Mexico, while Bopanna’s last win on the tour came in January, at the Chennai Open. However, Bopanna had been playing most recently in a Masters tournament, which is two rungs above the Challenger.

“Form was one of five things in my criteria”, said Bhupathi about Paes’ comments. He singled out fitness as one of the others, pointing out how he had asked the team to be medically assessed before the tie. “He (Paes) was the only one of these four who did not do the fitness test at the place I asked him to. So I don’t think he should be the one boasting about criteria,” Bhupathi retorted.

Late on April 9th evening the unpleasantries got worse. Both Bhupathi and Paes made posts on their social media accounts. On Twitter, Paes posted a statement calling the sharing of private messages with the media “conduct I find unbecoming of a Davis Cup captain.” On a Facebook post to his friends, Bhupathi explained how he has never responded “unless I was pushed into a deep hole,” saying Paes’ accusations of “using my position as captain of the Indian team to see through a personal agenda of humiliating him” left him no choice but to share the personal chat with the media.

More disconcerting was the fact that Paes was absent from the sidelines for the last two days of the tie, after cheering the team on the first day. According to Bhupathi’s Facebook post, Paes left Bangalore on the second day of the tie, leaving the team with only four players. Out of the six originally named, Yuki Bhambri pulled out due to injury, leaving Paes as the only reserve player. It is too much of a coincidence that he left on the day he was sure he would not get a game; had any of the singles players been unexpectedly injured on day three, Sriram Balaji would have most likely replaced them. Bhupathi described it as “the final nail in the coffin.”

The achievements of both Paes and Bhupathi, together and individually, are sacrosanct, and can never be forgotten. But Bhupathi seems determined to bring some professionalism to the Davis Cup team, with his emphasis on fitness testing and instructions to players not to comment on off-field issues while the tie was in progress. He reiterated that fitness testing would be a regular feature. “We want to do it once a year if not twice, to make sure the boys improve on fitness.”

Discipline is the other reason Bhupathi is here. His predecessor, Anand Amritraj was replaced despite decent results for his inability to enforce discipline. “I don’t think it’s my job to discipline anybody,” Bhupati insisted. “I’ll just put whatever happened in my report to the AITA. Hopefully this episode will never happen again, as long as I’m captain, and we can only learn from this,” he added.

The Dayafter had reported in February that the writing was on the wall for Paes as soon as Bhupathi was named Amritraj’s successor. It is fair to say that the two have reached new lows in their relationship, and it is hard to see Paes playing for India in September barring an injury to Bopanna.

For a number of years now, there has been much speculation as to why so many fellow Indian players have refused to play with Paes. While they have only dropped the odd hint in the media, Bhupathi’s Facebook post reveals details of specific incidents, which may have opened a rather deep can of worms. For more than a decade, Paes was synonymous with the Davis Cup, and deservedly so. But we might see the end of an era, mostly glorious, that Paes had defined.

It remains to be seen whether press conferences will get any less exciting in future.