Two juniors are hard at practice on the outer courts of the Balewadi Tennis Stadium. They have somehow managed to gain entry into the ATP Challenger in Pune, a $50,000 event that proudly calls itself #CelebratingIndianTennis.
But the sixth edition of the country’s most consistent Challenger event isn’t the main topic of discussion. The undercurrent of India’s upcoming Davis Cup tie against Pakistan and the customary drama that comes with it doesn’t stay unnoticed or unspoken.
For Saketh Myneni, a 32-year-old veteran, the never-ending controversy surrounding this upcoming tie has taken away all the sheen off the contest.
“The Davis Cup thing is going the wrong way. The whole team going and winning is gone (out of the window) now,” he says. “We are worried about other things in a negative way.”
Ever since the draw was made in February, India playing the tie in Pakistan had been a bone of contention. To begin with, the Pulwama attack raised doubts. As the months went by, the All India Tennis Association (AITA) announced a strong team — which included Myneni — that would make the first Davis Cup trip across the border in 55 years.
By August, the Kashmir issue arose, letters were exchanged between AITA and the International Tennis Federation (ITF), and the tie in Islamabad was pushed back from September to November. As the new dates approached, four of the original five members and non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi made it clear they will not travel to Pakistan. More letters were exchanged, AITA appointed a new skipper only for this tie — Rohit Rajpal – a new list of ‘available’ players — Myneni still included — was drawn up should the tie not be shifted to a neutral venue. But it was.
The final team and venue are still to be announced, but the likes of Rohan Bopanna and Sumit Nagal have already taken to social media to make clear their disappointment that Bhupathi has been removed for this tie.
After all the squabbling, Myneni fears the importance of playing Davis Cup, especially for the younger generation, is lost.
“When I was growing up, Davis Cup was big. Team events for tennis happen only once or twice a year, maybe the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, along with Davis Cup,” says Myneni, who has played six ties. “I don’t think the younger generation has seen the good side of it yet. There’s too much other drama going on. Tennis is not about the results of the top players like Prajnesh (Gunneswaran), Ramkumar (Ramanathan), Sumit (Nagal) anymore. That’s the way the sport is getting in a bad way.”
Myneni knows all too well what it is like to be involved (unwittingly) in such a drama. In 2016, India’s highest-ranked doubles player Bopanna, by virtue of being a top-10 player, had the option of picking a compatriot of his choice to partner for the Rio Olympics. The obvious choice at the time was Leander Paes, with whom Bopanna shares an acrimonious relationship, but Bopanna opted for Myneni and the AITA intervened. A year later, for a Davis Cup tie in Pune against New Zealand, the national body choose Myneni to team up with Paes for the doubles rubber, which led to an outburst by Bopanna. Crucially, Myneni got injured days before the tie and Bopanna allegedly refused to play.
The up-and-coming players are still years away from getting into Davis Cup contention, but Myneni fears that the negativity may potentially make the tournament unattractive.
“When they are not involved, they will maybe think that all the things that are written (in newspapers) is what’s happening. But once they are involved in the process, maybe it will be a different scenario,” he says. “That’s the time they will start thinking that they don’t want to be a part of the drama. Or maybe, they want to be a part of it. Because representing the country is a huge honour.”
Regarding the upcoming November 29-30 tie, it is expected that the Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF) will announce the neutral venue on Monday, and AITA will soon announce the final list of players. Myneni is still in contention, and he always was willing to play the tie, even when it was expected to take place in Pakistan.
“We want to go and win, that’s the priority for me. I didn’t want a forfeiture (in case India couldn’t field a team) and a ban and something else to happen, so I was alright with travelling to Pakistan,” he adds. “It’s about the sport, not about what’s happening behind the scene. Unfortunately, (the drama is) what tennis is become now.”