KOLKATA: In another ugly twist to the Indian Olympics tennis saga, Leander Paes has reportedly backed out of the London event citing his displeasure over AITA's compromise formula that teamed him up with a junior player.
AITA on Thursday adopted a two-team approach, saying that Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna - both of whom had declined to partner Paes - would comprise one team, while Paes and Vishnu Vardhan (ranked a lowly 207 in doubles)would constitute the other.
In what appears to be an attempt at striking a compromise, Paes has also been designated by AITA as Sania Mirza's partner in the mixed doubles event. This implies that Sania is unlikely to compete with Bhupathi with whom she had won the French Open mixed title last month.
AITA has asked for a singles and doubles wildcard for Sania.
Meanwhile, AITA general secretary Anil Khanna said he hoped Paes would not back out from the Games, as reported by certain sections of media.
He also sought to clarify things in connection with the mixed doubles team.
"Sania has already stated after the French Open that although she prefers to play with Mahesh, she would play with any partner in the Olympics. Leander and Sania are the only direct entry for the mixed doubles. If Sania gets a wild card, they will be only Indian pair at number 19 with their combined rankings," he explained.
Khanna maintained that no immediate disciplinary action against Bhupathi and Bopanna will be taken.
"To take a harsh decision against Mahesh and Rohan is not in the best interest of nation. AITA established a code of conduct, we will consider action only after the Olympics," he said.
Paes, the highest ranked Indian currently in doubles, is reportedly dissatisfied with AITA giving him the short end of the bargain.
"Leander will be disappointed with this decision; it is very unfair on him. He is a highly principled as well as an emotional man, so difficult to say which way he will go. I don't think Leander will agree with AITA's decision," said Dr. Vece Paes, former Olympian and Paes' father.
Bhupathi's father also threw his hat in the ring, saying he was delighted at AITA decision concerning the men's doubles, but not with the mixed doubles event.
"I am thrilled about the doubles team going. Relieved and happy with AITA's decision. Mahesh and Rohan have a reasonable chance to win a medal. Their chances will depend on the kind of draw they get," he said.
Vishnu Vardhan the "best available player without injuries right now", according to AITA, won a bronze in men's doubles at the 2010 Asian Games and a silver medal in the mixed doubles event with Sania Mirza.
"I'm very happy to be playing with Leander. I've grown up watching Leander. What he has done for the country is huge," Vishnu told a TV channel.
Fuelling a controversy that refuses to die down, now Leander Paes has threatened to pull out of the 2012 London Olympics if forced to partner a junior player in the men's doubles event.
In a letter to AITA on Wednesday, the veteran declared his stand on the matter and also said he was not in favour of sending two teams to London.
"If Mahesh or Rohan refuse to play with me for our country, then I am happy to play with the next best player that the AITA decides on. However, it would not be acceptable, if with my ranking as the best Indian tennis player, I give up the best option of partner for winning a medal for my country and am made to play the Olympics with a player ranked 207/306 in the world while the No.13 and No. 15 ranked players form another team together based on their refusal to play with me.
"If this is the case then for the sake of Indian Tennis and to relieve the AITA in regards to the selection of the team, I have no other option but to withdraw from the Olympics," Paes wrote.
"I have been ATP ranked at No. 1 in the world as a team and No. 7 in the world individually, for the first 6 months of 2012. By virtue of this I have got a direct entry into the Men's Doubles at the Olympics with the right to choose my partner," he added.
Paes also appeared to lobby for the mixed doubles event.
"I would also bring to your notice that Sania and I, by virtue of our combined ranking of No. 19 on the ATP Tour have got a direct entry in the Mixed Doubles at the Olympics," Paes said.
The AITA , which was supposed to make the final announcement on the men's doubles team on Wednesday, has now delayed the press conference to Thursday - the last day for the submission of names.
With Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna refusing to budge from their stand of not pairing up with Paes, the latter is likely to be forced to play with rank juniors such as Yuki Bhambri (ranked 306) or Vishnu Vardhan (ranked 207), since India's star singles player Somdev Devvarman is currently out of action with an injury.
Under duress to select the 'best possible' team in a nebulous environment, the selection committee had a marathon meeting last evening, with AITA President Anil Khanna saying, "We've taken everyone's opinions into consideration, this wasn't an easy task."
The AITA had earlier supported Paes over Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna in their acrimonious spat and said it was meaningless to send Paes to the Olympics with a junior player.
The Sports Ministry had also made it clear that that it will leave the team selection to the Tennis Association. "The Sports Ministry does not wish to be part of selection process. We had raised certain issues because of requests from certain iconic players," Sports Minister Ajay Maken said in a statement.
The Ministry had on Monday sought to bring an end to the crisis by questioning AITA on why only one team was being sent when there was a provision for India to float two outfits.
The AITA sent a letter to the Ministry detailing its logic for picking the Paes-Bhupathi combination.
"It would be meaningless to send Leander with a junior player who has not played Grand Slam. Leander being the best player must be paired with either Rohan Bopanna or Mahesh Bhupathi.
"It should be understood that two players cannot make a pact with each other to keep the number one player out and publicly suggest in media that the No.1 player should go to Olympics with No.5."
Maken also explained that his rationale for sending two teams was based on some prominent and iconic players bringing the selection issue to his notice.
Earlier, AITA secretary general Bharat Oza, in his reply to Sports Minister Ajay Maken said that "asking Leander to pair with a junior player (Yuki Bhambri or Vishu Vardhan) would be the most inappropriate decision".
Oza also said that doing so will be an insult to Leander, who enjoys great respect in the international tennis circuit.
Elaborating the five options to the sports ministry, Oza wrote: "Ask the players to follow the decision of the selection committee consisting of five Davis Cup players and 1 Fedeation Cup player. This means that Leander should play with Mahesh. This also means that there will be only one pair but in the views of the selectors the best possible pair."
The second option, in case Mahesh does not want to play with Leander, Bopanna should play with Leander as per the decision of the AITA selection committee. This again means only one pair will represent India at the Olympics.
The third option is of two Indian pairs at the Games. Leander would pair up with either Yuki Bhambri or Vishnu Vardhan and Mahesh could team up with Rohan Bopanna.
As per the fourth option, if Leander decides not to go to Olympics with a lower ranked player, only Mahesh and Bopanna will represent India.
The AITA in the final option said disciplinary actions should be taken against Mahesh and Bopanna if they don't abide by the decision of the selection committee and Leander takes court with a junior partner.
Coming down hard on Mahesh and Bopanna, Oza said: "It should be understood that two players cannot make a pact with each other to keep out the No.1 player out and thereafter publicly suggest in the media that No.1 player should go to the Olympics with the No.5 player."
After Bhupathi, Bopanna backs out
Rohan Bopanna declined AITA's offer to pair up with Leander Paes for the men's doubles event of the London Olympics.
Following Bhupathi's adamant refusal to team up with Paes, Bopanna's stand has placed the AITA in further distress after it had nominated the estranged Bhupathi-Paes as partners.
Bopanna made his disinclination to toe AITA's line this morning despite stating that it is his "dream to represent India in Olympics".
"With all respect and humility, I have been unable to accept AITA's offer and have communicated my decision to them in writing this morning," he said.
Paes however has said that he would partner anybody that AITA chooses. "I have no reaction to the recent statements made by Mahesh Bhupathi to the media. I have always maintained that I will play with whoever the selection committee and AITA choose and this continues to be my stand," he said.
Paes, though, expressed a preference for Bopanna. "It is a well-known fact that when asked by the AITA, I have expressed my preference to play with Rohan Bopanna as my partner in the Olympics 2012, based on his physical fitness and big serve. Winning a medal at the Atlanta Olympics is the most cherished memory I have in my tennis career. To play for our flag, and represent India for the 6th time at the Olympics, is my greatest honour. I will, as I always have in the past, put my best foot forward," he added.
A visibly upset Bhupathi had made clear his stand in an interview to a television channel, and also through an official email to AITA the contents of which were later made available online.
"I have already told AITA that I will not be available to play the Olympics if I am paired with Leander. I haven't even spoken to Leander since November. Rohan and I would have been the best pairing and we have repeatedly told the AITA that," he had said.
Bhupathi and Bopanna had also issued a joint statement, slamming the AITA's decision. "To not send one of the best tennis teams in the world to the Olympics - and to, instead, choose to nominate one that has had four previous unsuccessful attempts - fails to put the interests of the nation first," the statement read.
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