Yet another Olympics, yet another controversy in Indian tennis.
As the world gears up for Tokyo 2020, the inevitable clash between players and the All India Tennis Association has reared its ugly head again.
Ahead of London 2012 and Rio 2016, the controversy was around team selection in the men’s and mixed doubles. This time around too, it is centred around the doubles scenario.
Veteran doubles player Rohan Bopanna, on Monday, accused AITA on Twitter of misleading players, media and the government for making it seem like he still had a chance to make the Olympics with Sumit Nagal. The 41-year-old had failed to make the direct cut by the deadline because his ranking with preferred partner Divij Sharan was not high enough.
His tweet was further shared by Sania Mirza who said that if true, this had robbed India of a shot at a medal in mixed doubles. Former players Mahesh Bhupathi and Somdev Devvarman also chimed in, highlighting the need to reform the national federation.
The AITA then released a statement saying they were only trying to help and did their best to get at least one more Indian player in to get a doubles team.
Read the full statements from Monday here: Tokyo 2020: Rohan Bopanna, Sania Mirza question qualification confusion, AITA clarifies
On Tuesday, Bopanna released a call recording of his conversation with Anil Dhupar, AITA Honourary Secretary General, where he said that International Tennis Federation had accepted the nomination. That seemed to be the bone of contention, as ITF had not actually accepted any such nomination. The date had passed, as Bopanna had mentioned, and the combined ranking of either pair was not good enough.
AITA then shared a detailed look at their email interaction with the ITF dated 16 July, a copy of which is with Scroll.in, where they requested a change in nomination and tried other means to get a men’s doubles pair in.
The issue, although seemingly muddied in political waters, was simple. Bopanna was unable to get in directly based on ranking and was given hope that he could get a backdoor entry after Sumit Nagal made the singles cut. That hope turned out to be false. But the attempt to make it happen was perhaps not... perhaps it was just that: an attempt.
As the issue blows up, as such questions in Indian sport tend to when out on social media, it’s important to understand the background and context to this.
Did Indian men qualify for Olympics?
First things first, Bopanna could not make the direct rankings-based cut for the Tokyo Olympics along with Divij Sharan.
Bopanna (38) and Sharan (75), with a low combined rank of 113 missed out on qualification. According to the ITF, a few days before the July 16 deadline, they were the fifth alternates.
The AITA had announced the nomination of Bopanna and Sharan for the men’s doubles event of the Tokyo Games. This pair, who won the Asian Games gold medal in 2018, had always been the first-choice to represent India, as evidenced by the support they got from the Target Olympic Podium Scheme.
The funding has been to the tune of over a crore, given tennis is a pro sport and not one where the players represent a national team. Just in May, TOPS approved Divij Sharan and Rohan Bopanna’s participation in 14 and 11 tournaments respectively between January and June.
“Divij Sharan’s proposal cost approximately Rs. 30 lakh and he has received Rs. 80.59 lakhs in funding from TOPS in the present Olympics cycle. Rohan Bopanna’s proposal, including fee for coach Scott Davidoff and physio Gaurang Shukla, cost Rs. 27.61 lakh. He has already received Rs. 1.24 crore from TOPS through the current Olympic cycle.”— Sports Ministry statement
But in July, it was confirmed that they had not secured direct qualification. Bopanna and Sharan tried playing together and with different players across the tour. But they were still a few places away.
In the initial list from ITF earlier this month, the only Indian tennis players were Sania Mirza, who was playing with a protected ranking of top-10, and Ankita Raina, who the former world no 1 had chosen to partner.
But on July 16, Sumit Nagal made the cut for the men’s singles following large-scale withdrawals from higher ranked players. This gave some hope of a backdoor entry in doubles as well, because singles players were being given priority to fill the doubles draws.
AITA then tried to change India’s men’s doubles team’s entry, replacing Sharan with Nagal. This would have also meant that India could have fielded a mixed doubles team since Mirza was already there in the draw. Bopanna and Mirza, who played at Wimbledon together recently, had finished fourth at Rio 2016.
The ITF declined this request as seen in the emails. They replied that the doubles draw was full and reallocation was difficult since Nagal and Bopanna did not have a high combined ranking either.
Now, the current Olympics are being played under the cloud of coronavirus and there are many alternates and last-minute player withdrawal nitty-gritties that have not been there before. This could be a reason why the qualification scenarios were further complicated.
What caused the latest controversy?
Bopanna, in his tweet, said that AITA had misled everyone by saying he still had a chance to play doubles with Nagal. It was Mirza’s tweet after that suggested a medal chance had been lost. Bhupathi’s tweet said that AITA should have found a way for Bopanna and Mirza to play together since they were so close last time.
However, an AITA official confirmed to Scroll.in that they were doing everything they could to get more Indians at the Olympics, such as trying to get Raina a singles berth based on her Asian Games bronze medal and looking for ways to get a men’s doubles pair with accreditation of some sort made.
The point to be noted is that the only reason players were looking for a backdoor entry was because they couldn’t qualify directly. This is something AITA stressed upon in the initial response. They even furnished proof when it was suggested that they didn’t try enough.
Now, the national federation does not have the best of track records with players and have, often in the past, been at loggerheads with other stakeholders. As Bhupathi and Devvarman tweeted, the situation has almost always been player versus federation, which is never ideal. That is a longer conversation to be had.
But what was also not ideal is perhaps the timing of this controversy, right before the Olympics. While no one else involved in the social media saga might be there in Tokyo, Mirza is still very much in contention and having these questions can’t be helpful. Sadly, she has been in similar situations twice before at the Olympics. It’s how things turn out with Indian tennis so often.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.