Until last week, the controversy surrounding the Indian tennis Olympic selections had three principal cast members – Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna. Sure there were others in the backdrop – like administrators SM Krishna, Anil Khanna, sports minister Maken and players like Sania Mirza, Vishnu Vardhan, Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri.
However, with one strongly worded press release, Sania Mirza has upped the ante and changed all that. While the male players turned our nation’s hopes for an Olympic medal into fodder for stand-up comedy, Sania’s stand has earned her kudos from all sections of the tennis fraternity – fans, media and fellow players.
While everyone was fretting about how Leander might feel slighted at being paired with an inexperienced doubles player or how Mahesh and Rohan’s preparations over six months might go to waste if they did not go to London as a team, no one was paying attention to Sania.
Sania has invested as much as any of the other three in the hopes for Olympic glory. Ranked no. 88 in singles at the beginning of the year, Sania decided to give up her singles ambitions till the Olympics and focus on doubles to ensure she can maintain her top 10 ranking – the only way to directly qualify for the women’s doubles.
When Sania did that, she had one goal in mind – a medal in the mixed doubles, being introduced in the Olympics for the first time since 1924. Even with her top 10 ranking and excellent performance in doubles, Sania knew she had virtually no chance for a medal in the women’s doubles – with no other Indian woman in the top 500 of the singles world rankings or the top 450 of the world doubles rankings. However, to play in the mixed doubles, players need to be on site for either singles or doubles. To qualify for the singles cut-off for the London Games, Sania would need to be ranked around 64 as of June 11.
And when Sania decided to give up on singles and focus on doubles, it was based on the understanding that she would partner with Bhupathi in the mixed, with whom she recently won the French Open. When the initial team of Paes and Bhupathi was announced by the AITA, the AITA indicated that part of the reason driving that selection was to let Bhupathi play mixed doubles with Sania.
But Mahesh chose to force the issue and insisted that he would go to London only if he was partnered with Rohan. He left the issue of partnering with Sania open, knowing full well that his best chance for a medal in London would be with Sania and not Rohan.
With Rohan also refusing to partner Leander, the AITA was left with no choice but to let Mahesh and Rohan have their way and in an attempt to placate Leander, the AITA offered him the chance to play mixed with Sania, tempting Leander with the prospect of a medal in the mixed in exchange for his okay to play with an inexperienced Vishnu Vardhan.
What the AITA did not do was consult Sania in their decision. Even on the final day of the nominations to the ITF, when the story broke, the only comment from Sania was that she would be ready to partner anyone, but making her preference to partner Mahesh clear all the same.
Sania stayed quiet in the days thereafter, knowing she needed to be in the good books of the AITA, who had taken her case for a wild card to the ITF. It’s essential that a player must be supported by their national federation. Even a player ranked as high as world no. 9 Marion Bartoli has had to pay for not being supported by her national federation – the result being the Frenchwoman will not be playing in the Games.
However, once the news of the wild card for Sania became official, the Indian shot off a press release, which must have obviously been drafted days ago. She lashed out mainly at the AITA and Leander, but did not spare Mahesh or Rohan either.
It’s interesting to note here that Sania is managed by Globosport, the company owned by Bhupathi himself. And unless that relationship has changed in the past few days, it’s hard to imagine Globosport and Mahesh not being privy to its contents before its release – that makes you wonder if there is indeed a crack in the Mahesh-Sania friendship or if this is another clever maneuver to pressurize the AITA to rethink its stance on the mixed doubles pairing.
At the end of the day, while India’s top three players laid down their own terms and conditions for making themselves available to represent the country, Sania is the only top star – ready to go to London without any terms and conditions – agreeing to partner with either of the top 3 or even Somdev and Vardhan.
It’s rare to see a female player out ace a male player in a mixed doubles contest. But in this match, there is only one winner. And that’s Sania. Going from being a pawn in this battle to becoming its queen, India’s top ranked female tennis player has shown her countrymen a thing or two about class and commitment.