Saturday, January 12, 2013

Unraveling: Tennis, the menace

The last few months have witnessed brutal batterings on the cricket ground, the hockey field, the tennis court, the chess board, not to mention the mess that has always been Indian sports administration. Add a slice of three-peat Rose Bowl beatdowns and a season-ending beatdown at Candlestick P. in the evening, life is indeed a jerk. The only ray of sunshine has been the de javu of a tailgating Saturday with the flaming smell of bratwurst on Colorado Av. and a dash of an F-117 streaming overhead.

In any case, some of the curious off-court happenings in Indian tennis can be easily explained by a single maxim that has fantastically guided Indian actions and reactions from time immemorial: greed for money, power and prestige — not always in that order. Looking from this prism, let me wash some dirty laundry on the tennis saga, a thousand year itch that I have carefully avoided. This great Indian laundry washing has been a baby in cooking, but the tale is so depressing (as I see it) that I want to get it out and rinse with phenyl before heading elsewhere.

Flashback: The scene begins in 2008 with the Davis Cup match against Uzbekistan at New Delhi where captain Leander "patriotism-on-the-sleeve" Paes accuses a Prakash "playboy" Amritraj of not being patriotic/responsible/fit enough to do Davis Cup duty. With India up 2-1 and Rohan Bopanna losing a tough five-setter in the reverse singles match followed by a freak injury to Somdev, it is retribution time for Prakash who magically beats a much higher-ranked but-sapped Ivanisevic-clone, Farrukh Dustov, to give India a 3-2 win. Contrary to what was reported back then by mainstream conflict-avoidants (Linky), there were also indications that not all was well (Linky).

The following round in the Asia-Oceania outing and beyond sees an open and festering feud between Prakash (ably sided by Mahesh "I-am-the-playboy-not-you" Bhupathi in the name of camaraderie and bonding) and Leander, and open calls for Leander's ouster from the captaincy role (Linky 1, Linky 2). To induce some form of truce between its go-to-man Leander and the other camp comes a Shiv Prakash Misra — a golden oldie from the batch that also included Premjit Lal, Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaideep Mukherjea that took India to its first of three Davis Cup finals in 1966. With papa Vijay Amritraj having an enormous respect for the credentials of S. P. Misra, the ploy from AITA seems to have been a masterstroke. However, Leander and Mahesh's blood-feud had started long before S. P. Misra could have ever been born or worse, part-ay-ed, so it was a beast that was waiting for another opportunity to play itself.

With the ouster of U. S. Passport holder-Prakash from Davis Cup matchplay on the account of an M. S. Gill-initiated memorandum (Linky) and the ageing of Mahesh and Leander, the singles responsibility is increasingly shared by Somdev, Rohan and occasionally by Sanam Singh and Yuki Bhambri. The doubles combination has become a state of flux as Leander and Mahesh excuse themselves on and off from Davis Cup matches citing injuries, hectic schedules, cannot-stand-the-other-guy, etc. With no stable combination, the doubles fortune too nose-dives from being a sure-fire win to a questionable proposition. On the other hand, with Somdev and Rohan's form being on-and-off, the Indian team goes through a high entropy stage of being either too classy or too moribund, much like the eternal unpredictability of the Pakistani cricket team. This trajectory in the state-of-affairs is interrupted by the open feud that leads up to the London Olympic Games, about which not much has to be said except that Leander and anyone else in the Davis cup team can hardly see each other for more than five minutes. With AITA imposing a ban on the rebelling Mahesh and Rohan and Somdev laid low by a shoulder injury, the scene is set for the next generation of Yuki and Vishnu to take over the singles mantle. This they do, very ably, by demolishing the minnows from New Zealand. Nevertheless, the relationship between S. P. Misra and Yuki takes a beating as S. P. Misra accuses Yuki of being laidback in his reverse singles match.

As the Indian team has saved itself from the ignominy of relegation to Group II of the Asia-Oceania division, all eyes are now set for the Group I-first round match against South Korea at New Delhi in February. And then comes the explosive email from Somdev addressed to the AITA on December 16, 2012.

Fast forward to the current: The email, a laundry list of complaints, had pitted eight of the top-9 tennis players from India (barring Leander) and has further attracted three more players over the last few days, meaning that 11 of the top-12 tennis players in India have put themselves in the firing line and accused the AITA of so many things. Such a unified voice cannot be wished away by terms such as "rebel team" (which I will freely use for the lack of a better one) or as a conspiracy forged by Mahesh and Globosport or any other aspiring administrator (accusations that have been thrown around quite freely). So it behooves a sports nut to tear things apart and understand the issues raised and not raised, the things said and unsaid.

Regarding what is being reported in the mainstream press, the rebel players demand consisted of the following:
1) Choice of city and type of court: For as long as Leander was dominant in the singles matches, his preference was for grass court than for hard court. This meant that most of the home Davis Cup matches in the 1990s and 2000s were played at the R. K. Khanna Complex in New Delhi (named after the father of the current President of the AITA, Anil K. Khanna). Other grass court stadia in India such as Jaipur, Bombay and Calcutta hardly (if ever!) got the chance of hosting a Davis cup match, which also meant that it can be reasonbly speculated that much of the Davis cup organizing profits were piped down to the AITA and the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association. Meanwhile, the hard court SDAT stadium in Chennai has successfully run the ATP Chennai Open for over ten years (with a three year sponsorship renewal recently signed that seemed impossible in mid-2012 with the Open likely to shift to Doha or China) and as a result has developed a well-manicured infrastructure for players relative to the staid architecture of the R. K. Khanna stadium. Further, as the new generation of Somdev (who grew up in the NCAA hard court circuit) and Rohan prefer the hard court over grass, their lack of preference for the R. K. Khanna stadium was rather open (Linky) and there are good reasons to believe that the anti-Leander mood in the rebel camp could be attributed to the insistence on grass over hard courts for this long too.

As for the AITA retort that it needs to spread the game in as many cities as possible, it flies in the direction of fanciful fiction — most of the Davis cup matches in the last two decades have been conducted in New Delhi. The AITA has not conceded much here by offering to consult with the players or the captain. At the end of the day, the preference of the dominant singles player(s) subject to logistical/sponsorship constraints should be the key to gaining the home advantage in a home Davis cup tie.

2) Support staff: The support staff for the Davis cup team consists of the captain, coach, team doctor and physio. Over the last ten years, with the mistrust between Mahesh and Leander, each insisted on bringing his own coach/physio thus adding to the support staff. With the rise of Somdev, he too has often brought his coach/trainer along. The current set that dons the support staff mantle include S. P. Misra, Nandan Bal, Vece Paes (part-time) and Sanjay Singh. With the first three seen as soft and preferential to Leander, the rebel players have demanded a neutral and a common team for all players instead. Further, playing on the slower hard courts means that the body takes a much bigger blow than playing on grass. This means that strength in the legs matters much more than strength in the hands. With tennis getting more and more physical, the choice of a physio who also serves as a confidante becomes extremely critical in big-ticket matches. Thus the rebel team demanded a complete revamp of all of the support staff.

The preferred choice for Coach in the letter sent by the rebels is Aditya Sachdeva (Yuki's coach), but the AITA retorted that only ex-Davis cuppers can be appointed as coach and in any case, the final authority for picking the coach and the captain lay with the Executive Committee of AITA and not the players. Instead of Aditya Sachdeva, it came up with former Davis cupper (Calcutta based-) Zeeshan Ali whose father Akhthar Ali was only till recently a part of the selection committee at AITA and hence seen as an insider by the rebel players. The AITA shot down a replacement for S. P. Misra saying that the Korea tie will be a fitting farewell to the captain of 4+ years. The players insist that no such farewell event was given to other former captains such as Jaideep Mukherjea, Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh Krishnan, etc. The AITA initially referred the choice of team doctor and physio to the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs and SAI respectively, but has since then backed down saying that the choice will be based on consultation with players.

If that logic were to be extended as only ex-tennis players could be tennis federation administrators, more than 90% of the current office-bearers will have to be thrown out. The excuse of ex-Davis cuppers being coaches (let alone good coaches) make no sense. Being an ex-Davis cupper is not a qualification to coaching nor should the lack of one be a disqualification. At the end of the day, a coach has to be evaluated on his performance at the job and not on his "pedigree." Farewell to S. P. Misra can still be done by inviting him over to the South Korea tie and making him an AITA guest. Passing the buck to MSYA or SAI also is not ok.

3) Profit sharing: The International Tennis Federation (ITF) that runs the Davis Cup, Fed Cup and Hopman Cup competitions as well as the tennis competition at four year events such as Olympics, Asiads, etc. foots the bill accrued by the national tennis federations in bringing their national players to the Davis cup matches. For this, it uses the sponsorship money accrued from BNP Paribas and other global sponsors. The payment which ITF makes to AITA comes under two heads: prize money component and payment in lieu of advertising. In the last three decades, the AITA has never revealed what it gets from the ITF as payment in lieu of advertising. But sources say the money is handsome and the AITA is financially sound

Some say that around 50% of the total money sanctioned by the ITF goes under this tab (Linky). The rest of the 50% is distributed amongst the players on the basis of a formula, which looks to reward the top-ranked singles player the most. The reserves and coaches get paltry sums. The players are fine with a 50-50 split in lower zonal ties but do not want the federation to pocket half of the big money which comes from participation in the upper echelons of the competition. They are also tired of the reserves — the young players who actually need the money to invest into their game — getting hardly anything for showing up.

The AITA has agreed in part to this demand deciding to increase players' share for Group I ties from 50 to 60 per cent as against 70-30 demanded by them. However, AITA said it will raise the players share to 70 per cent if the team wins Group I. For World Group ties, the players' share has been raised to 70 per cent from 60 although the players had demanded 80-20 in their favour.

4) Other issues: The rebel team claims that a Davis cup team of four + two reserve players does noone any benefit and a team of six should be the official Davis cup team as the four member team lacks enough practice partners and the next crop of players never get a good chance to build their skillsets. This means that the reserve players will have to travel to the venue of the Davis cup event and this would result in higher costs to AITA (especially if the ties are away). As of now, Mahesh, Leander and Somdev travel business class while the rest of the team goes economy class. Apparently, the extra legroom in the business class translates into less possibility of cramps and aids recovery after tournaments. The rebel team demands that all the six members need to get a business class ticket as this is necessary to build team camaraderie.

After much thought and back-pedalling, the AITA seems to have conceded on these two points, but the team announced for the Korea match still has four main players and two reserves, which really puts a spotlight on the trustability of the AITA in keeping its word. The lack of trust between the rebel team and the AITA is pretty much the source of much of this bickering. While the AITA claims to have parlayed with two or three players from the rebel team, Somdev claims that nothing was written down till the 12 PM countdown time.

With the saids out of the way, here are the unsaids:
1) Corruption in the administration: Here is a list of the office bearers of the AITA.
Life President: Yashwant Sinha
President: Anil K. Khanna
Secretary General and Executive Vice-President: Bharat Oza
Joint Secretary:  C. S. Sunder Raju
Treasurer: Raktim Sikia
Vice-Presidents: Chintan Parikh, Deepender Hooda, Dalbir Singh, Jawahar Sircar, Karti P. Chidambaram, M. A. Alagappan, Narendra Kumar, Pratyush Sinha, Mrs. Praveen Mahajan and Rajan Kashyap.
Executive Committee: Hironmoy Chatterjee (Bengal), A. B. Prasad (Bihar), Asit Tripathy (Orissa), T. D. Francis (Kerala), C. B. N. Reddy (Tamil Nadu), Sharad Kannamwar (Maharashtra), Anil Dhupar (Madhya Pradesh), Suman Kapur (Haryana), C. P. Kacker (Uttar Pradesh), V. K. Batra (Delhi) and Ashok Kumar (Andhra Pradesh).

First of all, the office bearing administrative staff is stacked with politicians, industrialists, IAS/IPS officers, judges, etc., some of whom seem to have no connection to tennis. This is not an AITA-centric phenomenon, but runs across the spectrum of Indian sport federations. Leaving that trend aside, and looking specifically at the case of Anil Khanna, here are some of the charges leveled against him (Linky):
a) The AITA removed two clauses from its Constitution in 2005 that specifically disqualified people with a commercial interest in tennis from being office bearers. These prior stipulations read that anyone who "is engaged in the manufacture or sale of tennis requisites" and "is in full or part-time employment in the tennis department of a firm supplying sports goods" would be ineligible to hold office. The clause modified after the extraordinary general body meeting on April 23, 2005 reads "In furtherance of its objects, AITA may enter into an agreement with any firm, organisation or concern in which the office bearers and the members of executive committee may or may not be financially interested as Director or partner".

That in itself seems like a harmless modification lest the extra fact that Khanna's son Aditya Khanna is the CEO of the Indian arm of the Australian firm, Rebound Ace, that got the contract to lay the tennis courts at the R. K. Khanna complex for the Commonwealth Games. Another uncomfortable fact is that Anil Khanna was the Treasurer of the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee which makes it an undeniable question of conflict of interest in awarding the contract (Linky). The contract for relaying costed the Government of India Rs. 65 crores (Linky), and the relaying was deemed by the players to increase the potential for injury and hence was rejected by the Australian Open organizers (Linky).
b) The land on which the National Tennis Academy (NTA) came up (on the Gurgaon-Pataudi road) belonged to the Khannas. Since then, a huge textile factory has come up at the gate of the premises which dwarfs the tennis facility. To begin with, it made no sense to have a so-called academy so far removed from the city. It never really took off and players constantly complained about its lack of connectivity. Khanna has not provided any solid explanations for why AITA funds were sunk into this particular place, why his land was bought, how a new textile factory came up after the NTA was put up, etc.

2) Code of conduct: In the wake of the fiasco that marred the doubles team selection for the London games, the AITA came up with a provisional code of conduct (that was absent at that time) which would have allowed the AITA to impose disciplinary sanctions and fines on erring players instead of slaps on the wrist like bans for Davis cup matches. The rebel team has not talked much about the expectation of the AITA on the part of players to sign the provisional code and it is clear that at least Mahesh and Rohan dislike such a code that will put the players' well-reasoned decisions with considerable sanctions. In any case, the provisional code of conduct is particularly intimidating as Mahesh had filed a lawsuit against AITA that the two year ban put on his participation in Davis cup by the AITA should be set aside. The Karnataka High Court agreed on legal grounds that the AITA had not complied with its own rules in l-affaire-Mahesh.

3) Professionalism: While being a neta or a babu or a judge or an IAS/IPS officer is not a disqualification to being a good sports federation administrator, the fact that most of the administrators have been associated with AITA for a long period (some even for 20 years) can only be explained as the pursuit of power and prestige cutting across partisan politicking. Further, the current body that has been perceived by the players to be corrupt, preferential to Leander, and random in its application of rules and regulations seems to suggest that not everyone of the players who are rebelling seem to be in awe of the AITA. Further, some of the finances disbursed by the AITA seems to have been done in a way that allows the players to evade income tax. That has been the hold that AITA has had on them for a long time. That is also a major reason why many, who do not get along with AITA, still keep their silence.

4) Rise of the South: Of the 11 rebelling players, eight are from the South. Mahesh and Rohan are based out of and are from Bangalore, Somdev was blooded in Madras and is based out of Austin, Vishnu Vardhan and Saketh Myneni are from Hyderabad, and Sriram Balaji, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Vijay Sundar Prashanth are from Madras. As for the other three: Yuki and Divij Sharan are from New Delhi and Sanam Singh is from Chandigarh. This fits with the pattern that historically speaking, the South has been at the forefront of Indian tennis whether it was Ramanathan Krishnan or Ramesh Krishnan or the Amritraj brothers. Of course, Calcutta has been another big bastion of Indian tennis with Leander being only the latest exponent from the east side.

With the player profile out of the way, tennis administration has remained a toss-up between Delhi-based elites, Calcutta-based elites and Madras-based elites. With Anil Khanna stuck in the middle of tennis administration for decades now, the scion of the current Finance minister, Karti Chidambaram, seems to have made a dash at displacing the center of mass of tennis administration back to the South. The death of the Sunfeast Open and the survival of the Chennai Open, the training of Tamil Nadu-based crop of juniors at Germany, Spain and France only makes the Karti Chidambaram led TNTA's case better in terms of sports administration/professionalism. At the very least, the perception of Karti in the minds of the rebel team is far better than that of the random attitudes and behaviors of the AITA.

Conclusion: Whether the unfoldings of the last month has to be seen as a depressing farce or as a Mahabharatham for justice and dharma in Indian tennis is dependent on the vantage point that comforts the reader. As for me, I remain confused and will remain so till the truth emerges. While truth is never comforting, hopefully there are fewer data points that are yet to be connected in my search for that elusive truth.

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