City City Bang Bang, Columns

An olympian dilemma

On the face of it, the current fracas over the Indian tennis team seems like a story of petty ego clashes and administrative mismanagement, standards ingredients in the Indian controversy cocktail. To many, the stand taken by Bhupathi and Bopanna smacks of small-minded selfishness, an act of putting the self before the nation by isolating someone most Indians see as a selfless national hero. To a few, the question is less clear cut; after all, the fact that so many players are refusing to play with Leander must point to some problem with the veteran star. The role of the AITA has come under almost universal attack, as it advertises its helplessness and waffles its way from one non-position to another.

There is a fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the entire debate. While accusing Bhupathi of putting personal interest over that of the nation, the criticism itself is centred primarily on safeguarding the personal interest of another individual. The focus is not so much on selecting the teams with the best probability of winning, for if that were the case then the in-form combination would automatically get picked, but in paying tribute to someone who has been the country’s top player for several years now. The overweening emotionality surrounding the desire ‘not to be unfair to Leander’ reveals the nature of the implicit considerations being used. Paes is taken as a given and the other players are meant to revolve around him, even if they do not wish to play with him. The compromise that is being attempted focuses exclusively on appeasing egos; a Bopanna conceded and a Sania extracted makes for a peculiar kind of faux-equilibrium that not only makes everyone uniformly unhappy but also makes little sense from the perspective of medal prospects.

But what of Bhupathi’s position? Can he be allowed to dictate terms to the tennis federation, and in some ways to the country? Is he not putting forward an argument based on a personal emotional need rather than look at the larger national interest? But is this binary, this apparent dichotomy between the personal and the national really what is at stake here? When Bhupathi insists that he cannot play with Paes, is he merely throwing a tantrum?

The nature of a tennis doubles team is responsible for some of the confusion. It is a combination sport rather than a team sport, in that it is not an arithmetical aggregation of individual abilities. More than any other sport, it depends on an exquisite mutuality and instinctive complementarity. It calls for mutual anticipation, trust, the filling in of each other’s gaps and a tolerance for each other’s failures. This is a sport that is much more about failure, weakness and its management than most others. Given its fast and fluid nature, circumstances change very quickly- attack turns into defence, a yawning gap into a sneak opportunity, and sport into a form of choreography. The nature of partnership is chemical more than physical, resembling dance rather than athletic exertion. Which is why the brute force of individual rankings do not automatically translate into better performance in doubles, and a pair like Paes-Bhupathi met with such success in spite of their lowly positions on the singles charts.

For Bhupathi to contend that he does not wish to play with someone he no longer trusts is therefore hardly an act of arrogance, but a simple acknowledgment of fact. Tennis teams come in units of two, not as two individuals gummed together for a cause, no matter how lofty or worthy. The nature of the sport demands a reciprocal respect and instinctive understanding between the two players, something that is clearly absent today. The issue here is not one of giving in to an unreasonable demand of a star player and protecting the rights of the bigger, more heroic star but of playing the combination that the works best together and does so consensually. When we argue that the more accomplished player has the right to play with any individual that he is paired with, it is we who are putting the interests of an individual over that of the team.

At a larger level, the focus on individuals in any arena of endeavour in India means that the world gets splintered into factions, blocs and camps. Be it films, politics or sport, the tendency of a collective to fragment into splinters based on ego, narrow personal interest and hierarchy is visible across the board. Political parties increasingly act as back-up bands for charismatic individuals and offer little be way of ideology or well-articulated positions on key policy issues. Leaders across the spectrum spend most of their energies fighting enemies from within, and the most successful leaders are those who rule with an iron fist. The focus on individuals gets amplified thanks to the current media discourse which frames most issues through the lens of prominent individuals. The issue of the legislative responsibilities of nominated MPs, for instance, gets raised when Sachin Tendulkar gets nominated to the Rajya Sabha, and a sudden interest is developed in pressing social issues when Aamir Khan decides to make a television programme on the subject.

Tennis is no exception. The real issue here, as some have pointed out, is not whether Leander and Mahesh play together but that they play at all after so many years. Had our interest been in tennis, or sport or even in winning more Olympic medals we would have been debating a different set of issue. As it turns out, we find ourselves paralysed yet again by our fascination with individuals, unable to find a way to choose a team without resorting to whiny negotiation and sly compromise.