The troubles at the highest levels of Indian tennis over the past week serve as explanation for why this country has consistently underperformed in terms of sporting achievement: its sports administration is stuck in a previous century — culturally and organisationally. The All India Tennis Association or AITA richly deserved the humiliation it was handed by Indian tennis’ top-ranked woman, Sania Mirza, in the letter that she wrote after her participation in the London Olympics was confirmed. She pointed out that it was unacceptable for a national sporting federation, in the 21st century, to use one of the most successful Indians in the sport’s history as “bait” for another player’s participation and compliance. The reason, which she did not have to spell out, was that she was a woman, and the AITA is incapable, apparently, of putting female achievement on a par with that of a man. And while Wimbledon, for example, used to have an enormous disparity in the prize money between men and women, that is a thing of the past — it wasn’t merely unjust, it ignored how women’s tennis — less dependent on powerful serving — had become more watchable, and quite as popular, as the men’s game.
The tennis world has moved on, but India’s tennis administrators haven’t. It might be useful to review how this situation arose. The old, champion pairing of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi has split due to irreconcilable differences. Mr Bhupathi has achieved some success as a team with Rohan Bopanna. Yet the AITA tried to get both Mr Bhupathi and Mr Bopanna to play with Mr Paes, at his insistence — an action that reveals much about the body’s inability to understand the nature of teamwork, and how the whole is more than the sum of its parts, especially in doubles tennis. When both Mr Bhupathi and Mr Bopanna declined to play with Mr Paes, the AITA promised him that India would send two teams. But Mr Paes, unsatisfied with partnering Vishnu Vardhan — ranked only 307 in the world — clearly needed further “compensation”, thought the AITA. Thus they offered him a mixed-doubles medal chance thanks to a partnership with Ms Mirza — hence her “disillusionment” that she had been used as “bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis.”
Ms Mirza’s letter is a tour de force of justified outrage. Yet its power and applicability extend beyond one occasion and one sport. India’s sports administrators are hostages to the past: to sexism, as in this case; or to placating fading champions instead of nurturing new ones. A gold Ms Mirza would win is not made of an inferior variety of that metal than any Mr Paes might win. In its justification, AITA said that its choice of Mr Paes and Ms Mirza as a doubles team was due to them both being highly ranked, and thus India’s best chance at a medal. This statement either conceals the truth, that otherwise it would have had to deal with a sulking Mr Paes; or it reveals breathtaking levels of ineptitude at the highest levels of the AITA. After all, Ms Mirza and Mr Bhupathi just won a Grand Slam title three weeks ago. Clearly, as a team, they gel and are in form, in spite of their exit at Wimbledon — but they aren’t to be sent to the Olympics. Is it any wonder that India underperforms?