In the nine months since the Davis Cup tie between India and Pakistan has been announced, it has been at the centre of some row or the other.
First, the diplomatic relationship between the two countries degraded further through the year, the International Tennis Federation took its time to make decisions, India’s captain was replaced and then there was a fallout between the All India Tennis Association and some of the players.
Here’s a look at how, why and when the tie became a bone of contention between so many parties.
When and how the tie in Pakistan was decided?
In the first week of February, India lost the World Group play-offs 1-3 to Italy in Kolkata and were relegated to the zone group. Days later, the draw pitted India and Pakistan in an Asia/Oceania group encounter to be held in September. Even when the draw was announced, there were questions about whether India would travel to Pakistan or would they agree on a neutral venue.
No Indian Davis Cup squad has travelled to Pakistan since March 1964 while Pakistan had last played tennis in India back in 2006. The All India Tennis Association said it will approach the government to know if the team will be allowed to travel.
All this happened before the Pulwama terror attack in mid-February that further complicated matters.
Were the AITA and players ready to go to Pakistan?
Yes, at one point in the year, both the federation and players were ready to send a team to Pakistan as forfeiture can lead to a two-year suspension from the International Tennis Federation. Unlike cricket, were bilateral series are forbidden by the government, tennis is an Olympic sport and therefore mandated to participate in all events.
The tensions between the two neighbours heightened after the Pulwama attack, where more than 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed. The closure of Pakistan’s air space in the aftermath of the Balakot air strikes had even resulted in India losing the hosting rights of the junior Davis Cup and Fed Cup in March.
However, the matter soon died down and in June, it was reported that India was likely to travel to Pakistan after 55 years. The tie, scheduled for September 14-15, was to be held on grass in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. An ITF inspection team has already visited Pakistan and given a go-ahead while non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi’s letter about security was answered by the AITA. Top Indian players like Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Rohan Bopanna subsequently said the venue not a cause for concern.
AITA even announced a full-strength squad with all the top singles and doubles players, with the exception of Sumit Nagal who claimed to be injured.
What changed? Kashmir’s special status
When the Indian government announced that the special status of Jammu and Kashmir will be revoked and the state bifurcated into union territories, it also unwittingly endangered the Davis Cup tie after months of preparation. Pakistan decided to downgrade diplomatic relations with India and suspend bilateral trade which started a long-drawn tussle with India again.
Understandably, the players didn’t feel comfortable travelling and the AITA requested the international tennis body for a neutral venue. However, the Pakistan Tennis Federation ruled out the move and said they would continue preparing for the tie in September.
The ITF, on its part, said they were happy with the security arrangement in Pakistan.
The stalemate continued as AITA asked the world governing body to either postpone the Davis Cup tie against Pakistan in Islamabad or take it to a neutral venue given the current diplomatic tensions between the two countries. They cited a 2001 Davis Cup tie between India and the USA in North Carolina, which was postponed because of the 9/11 terror attack in New York.
The ITF shared their security plans with AITA and offered to have a discussion with their security consultants.
When did ITF finally relent?
Finally, at the end of August, the ITF agreed to AITA’s request and announced that the tie will be postponed to November.
“Following an in-depth security review of the current situation in Pakistan by independent expert security advisors, the Davis Cup Committee has taken the decision to postpone the Davis Cup Asia/Oceania Group I tie between Pakistan and India in Islamabad, due to be played on 14-15 September,” the ITF said in the statement.
It should be noted, that the venue was still to be Islamabad, though the dates had been changed. The new dates for the tie are November 29-30.
What is the team selection controversy?
Despite the change, the team had their reservations about travelling to Pakistan citing security concerns.
Non-playing captain Bhupathi, top doubles player Bopanna and top singles players like Ramkumar Ramanathan, Sumit Nagal, Sasi Kumar Mukund said they are not comfortable travelling to Islamabad. India No 1 in singles Prajnesh Gunneswaran and doubles Divij Sharan had also said they are not available for the tie due to personal reasons.
Subsequently, the AITA – in order to get the visas ready – had planned for a second-string team with the players who had made themselves available to play in Pakistan, which included veteran Leander Paes.
A team was not officially named, but a change in captaincy was announced even as ITF was discussing a proposed change in venue. Former player and chairman of selectors Rohit Rajpal was named the non-playing captain of the side for the tie in Pakistan.
A few hours after this announcement, the ITF moved India’s Davis Cup tie away from Islamabad to a neutral venue, citing the safety of players and officials.
While that may have come as a relief to AITA, it gave rise to a new controversy over team selection and the change in captaincy before the decision of the meeting was announced.
Senior doubles player Bopanna lashed out at AITA for not consulting or even informing the players before announcing the new non-playing captain. Former player Somdev Devvarman has slammed the association as well.
Bhupathi said the AITA did not even inform him that he is being replaced as captain irrespective of where the tie is played. He said that the communication to him was that Rajpal was being appointed just for the tie in Islamabad as he was unavailable and it was never conveyed that he was being removed for good.
But that is not the only fire AITA has to douse. The Pakistan Tennis Federation has decided to appeal against the decision to shift the Davis Cup tie against India to a neutral venue.
What was AITA’S response?
In response, the AITA and new captain Rajpal addressed a press conference on Thursday to clear the misunderstanding. They implied that Rajpal was captain for just this one tie because they were unsure of whether the ITF would decide in India’s favour.
AITA CEO Akhouri Bishwadeep said that the perception that they take decisions in an autocratic manner was not true and the change in captaincy happened because the ITF had not given the impression that it will move the Davis Cup tie out of Islamabad. As Bhupathi was not keen on travelling, they approached Rajpal who agreed without any condition.
Bishwadeep said Bhupathi had even suggested that India should take the loser’s spot if ITF does not agree to shift the tie, something that AITA was not keen on doing.