India’s top active tennis players Leander Paes, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza have become involved in a very public spat following India’s 0-5 loss to Spain at the World Group Playoff at the Davis Cup last weekend.
Bopanna and Paes significantly fell out publicly earlier this year following Bopanna being coerced by the AITA or the All-India Tennis Association to pair with the 18-time Grand Slam winner after having initially picked India's top singles ace Saketh Myneni as his partner instead.
Bhupathi and Bopanna have previously been partners on the professional circuit, winning an ATP Masters title together, and have shared a friendly relationship off-co urt too. Mirza, meanwhile, has not only been Bhupathi’s former partner on the tour, but has been mentored by, and shares a warm personal and professional rapport with the Bengaluru-born ace – with whom she won the French Open mixed doubles title in 2012.
Bopanna had said in an interview with Sportskeeda that he intended to put his differences aside to pair with Paes and play for the country, which he would go on to do.
Paes’ problems with his colleagues, however, have had a long history.
A look at where problems began for Paes and Bhupathi
Many reasons for the professional split between Paes and Bhupathi are still unclear, but the two abruptly ended their relationship in 2006, following their doubles gold win at the Asian Games in Doha that year, where Paes also won mixed doubles gold with Sania Mirza.
In the immediate wake of that win, Bhupathi announced that the pair were to split, specifying that it had been Paes’ decision, not his own. “"Honestly, our story is the biggest tragedy that has ever happened to Indian sport, and I say that I am glad that this tragedy ended on a high note with a gold in the Asian Games," he said in an interview after the games.
According to Bhupathi, he had been on the receiving end of several remarks from Paes, who had allegedly been making remarks about Bhupathi’s performance and no longer wanted to partner the man with whom he won three Grand Slam titles. Following the Indian team's loss at that Games, Paes had made remarks about his colleague’s fitness and suggested that Bhupathi had been the major cause of that loss.
In an impassioned letter published in the Hindustan Times in 2006, Bhupathi said “…..We have had a great career together and have hit another high this week with another gold medal. I am definitely not as flamboyant as Leander is with the media but am as passionate about playing for India. The million-dollar question is the Olympics in 2008. Leander tells the media that he would love to play with me at the Olympics; five minutes later he mentions to an acquaintance that my career will be over in six months.”
That million dollar question was answered when in 2008, it was announced the two would in fact be playing together. The two reached the quarter-finals of the event, tumbling to eventual gold-medal winners Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.
Despite their significant differences and a very publicly played-out rift, the two had been able to put in a series of strong performances there – performances that were largely precipitated by the intervention of AITA President Anil Khanna, who had allegedly asked the two to come together for the Games.
One-time Davis Cup teammates of Paes, Bhupathi, Prakash Amritraj and Rohan Bopanna had all asked for Paes to be removed as Captain earlier that same year, which meant that it had been more than a significant effort to bring the pair together for the Olympics. That had perhaps sown the seeds of Bopanna’s resentment towards Paes, under whose authoritarian demands the team had allegedly chafed.
A similar row then erupted again ahead of the 2012 Olympics.
Problems ahead of London 2012 and the beginning of issues with Mirza
Mirza had not been entirely pleased with the AITA's decision to partner her with Leander Paes at the Olympic Games in London, and expressed this at the time. In a statement during the controversy, Mirza said that she would have “preferred to partner Mahesh”, but added she would play with “any partner AITA chooses for me.”
Following this, Vece Paes, the father of Leander, said in a televised interview that he needed “written assurance” from Mirza that she would partner Paes in the mixed doubles and not any other player, if Paes was to partner Vishnu Vardhan in the singles. The AITA had been forced to create two doubles teams after Bhupathi refused to pair with Paes, with Rohan Bopanna also declining.
That meant that Bopanna and Bhupathi were fielded as one team, and Paes and Vardhan as the other.
Neither pair was unable to progress beyond the second round, with Bhupathi and Bopanna losing to eventual quarter-finalists Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France, while Paes and Vardhan went down in three sets to eventual silver medal winners Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Michael Llodra.
Mirza, effectively ‘forced’ to partner Paes, had said at the time that she felt as though she had been used as “bait by the AITA to pacify the two players.” A longtime friend of Bhupathi, however, the World No. 1 continues to maintain a warm professional and personal relationship with him even in the wake of the alleged ‘row’.
Bhupathi defends Paes after split
In 2014, caught in the midst of a messy separation from former partner Rhea Pillai, Paes, who had been fighting for custody of daughter Aiyana, had been accused by Pillai of domestic violence.
At the time, Paes received support from an unlikely quarter, with Bhupathi publicly issuing a statement saying he believed “ (Paess)....could never be abusive and violent,” adding that his daughter, who was eight at the time, was “very close to her doting father.”
Paes and Bopanna come together again
This one may not have necessarily been by choice, however. The two had played only the occasional match together on the professional circuit, but came together at the 2016 Davis Cup tie against South Korea, played in Chandigarh, winning their grass-court doubles rubber. Following that, it was Bopanna who received a free pass into the men’s doubles at the Olympic Games as a result of his top-10 doubles ranking.
Also as a result of this development, Bopanna was given the freedom to choose his partner, selecting top singles player Saketh Myneni, whom he said suited his playing style better than Paes did.
Despite this, the AITA would intervene, overruling Bopanna’s choice in favour of Paes. Mirza, however, would still play with Bopanna on the professional circuit. While Paes and Bopanna were unable to progress beyond the first round, Bopanna and Mirza managed to fight until the bronze medal stage of the mixed doubles.
The ‘feud’ had appeared to die down, but Bopanna had been conspicuous by his absence on the Davis Cup side, which featured Paes, Myneni, Ramkumar Ramanathan and teen player Sumit Nagal.
Now, following India’s 0-5 loss to Spain, Paes reignited the feud, with both Mirza and Bopanna taking to social media to react angrily to the developments.
Although several sources have suggested Paes is difficult to work with, he still remains unequivocally the best tennis player India has produced. This does not, however, imply that he should have absolute reign, or even any superior influence on the decisions taken by the central organization.
The truth may for now seem murky at best, but the end result has been that some of the sport’s most successful Indian faces have now become involved in an ugly spat that could have been discussed, or even solved, behind closed doors.