Tennis inadvertently treaded into disputed territory on Wednesday, as India was drawn to play Pakistan, in Pakistan for their Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I tie in September. Even though idealists believe sports and politics should not mix, they routinely lean on each other.
India and Pakistan have a long and tumultuous history. And even though at sports was once seen as the one great uniting factor, India has frozen any bilateral athletic ties with Pakistan in recent times. India last played Pakistan in a cricket Test match in 2007 and Pakistani players have meticulously kept away to participate in any of the thriving sports Leagues in India. In 2017, wrestlers and squash players from Pakistan were denied visas for tournaments in India.
The then sports minister, Vijay Goel, in May 2017, had said: "Terrorism and sports can't go along together. The sporting relations between India and Pakistan can be cordial only after Pakistan stops sponsoring cross-border terrorism. India takes these things very seriously."
A diplomatic wrangle is likely to ensue before, and if, the Davis Cup tie does take place.
Knowing how sensitive the issue is, Hironmoy Chatterjee, the Honorary Secretary General of the All India Tennis Association, refrained from saying much. "We will have to discuss this with the government first," he said. "Only then will we be able to make a decision."
India last played Pakistan in the Davis Cup in 2006 on a make-shift grass-court at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai. The hosts, who had defeated Pakistan all five times the teams have faced before, just about kept up their unbeaten record as they scraped past in the fifth rubber and won the tie 3-2. Given that teams alternate hosting rights in Davis Cup, Pakistan has the choice of ground for the September tie.
The All India Tennis Association is likely to ask for a neutral venue given the strained relations between the countries. And indeed there is a precedent. In 1973, India had played against Pakistan in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
But India is not in a direct war with Pakistan, or has been in one in recent times. The International Tennis Federation (ITF), the governing body, has been stern in protecting hosting rights.
When the security situation had worsened in Pakistan, they had suspended the country from hosting Davis Cup matches for 12 years. The ITF committee lifted that suspension in 2017, when Iran, reluctantly so, visited Pakistan for the Asia-Oceania Group I Round I tie. In the next round, Hong Kong refused to travel to the South East Asian country and ended up forfeiting the tie. They were relegated from Group II to Group III.
India run the risk of similar sanctions if the team is not allowed to play in Pakistan.
Diplomacy apart, it is a very winnable battle for India on the tennis court. The top seeds in Asia-Oceania Group I, India is ranked No 20 in the world to Pakistan's 37.
Pakistan have a couple of old warhorses in Aisam Qureshi and Aqeel Khan. They have been constant to Pakistan's rise in the team event and had led the country to a historic World Group Play-off place in 2005. A natural at serve and volley, Qureshi has been as far as the second round at Wimbledon and along with India's Rohan Bopanna had made it all the way to the US Open doubles final in 2010. Though still a force in team events, the 38-year-old Qureshi's exploits on tour are now restricted to the doubles arena.
With the ATP employing a cut-off point in rankings from this year " they go as high as 685 currently " Pakistan has no ATP-ranked players. India, meanwhile, has three (Prajnesh Gunneswaran (103), Ramkumar Ramanathan (133) and Yuki Bhambri (152)"in the first 200.
"It's a good draw for us with the depth in our team," India's non-playing captain, Mahesh Bhupathi, who was a member of the team that played Pakistan in 2006, said. "We are looking forward to winning and getting back to the World Cup playoffs again. Last one was too close for comfort."
India have, undoubtedly, hit a roadblock at the World Group play-off stage with teams and players much higher ranked than them. But they have breezed through the Zonal stages and have contested for a place in the World Group for five successive years now.
Another shot at rubbing shoulders with the world's best though may be in jeopardy if sports and politics do mix.