NEW DELHI – India's ongoing tennis selection muddle took a curious turn on Tuesday when the game's national body requested help from the sports ministry to finalize the men's doubles team for the Olympics.
National sports bodies don't usually like the interference of the government but the All India Tennis Association made the surprise move after being asked by the sports ministry to explain the selection of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi as the sole men's pair for London.
The selection became controversial as Bhupathi has been playing with compatriot Rohan Bopanna on the ATP Tour, and Bhupathi and Bopanna refused to pair up with Paes, the highest-ranked player in the world among the trio at No. 7 in doubles.
AITA said it selected Paes because he was the only one to receive an Olympic entry due to his world ranking and deserved to be part of a strong team.
"We may kindly explain that if Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna are entered as a team, then Leander Paes will have to partner some other player and since Somdev Devvarman is injured, it will have to be the next best player who is either Yuki Bhambri, who is ranked 306 in the world, or Vishnu Vardhan, who is ranked 207 in the world," AITA said in the letter.
"AITA had noted that Mahesh and Rohan were playing together, but at no stage had stated that they will necessarily be sent as a pair, irrespective of the standing of other players."
AITA gave the sports ministry an option of five scenarios whereby either one or two teams could be sent to the Olympics but suggested that "there is no need to send a team which has no medal-winning prospects."
Sports minister Ajay Maken asked for an explanation since the government had been funding preparation, and two teams had qualified for the Olympics -- Paes along with another partner by virtue of his top-10 ranking, and Bhupathi and Bopanna because of their combined ranking of 26.
"The government has been funding and supporting multiple players to train and qualify for the Olympics," Maken wrote in a letter to the AITA on Monday. "What is the justification of denying two players, who have qualified as a team on merit, by sending just one Indian team when India can send two teams?"
The selection controversy even drew comments from Indian Olympic Association president Suresh Kalmadi, who has not been actively involved in the national body's affairs since spending nine months in jail last year on corruption charges relating to the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
"As two teams have qualified in tennis for the London Olympics, I think in the national interest both teams should be sent," Kalmadi said in a statement. "I support the sports minister's stand as it involves prestige of the country and I hope that AITA would change its stand with a view to get more medals."
Bhupathi and Bopanna made clear on Friday their refusal to play with Paes.
"We have worked together on strengthening our partnership and have proved its benefits," Bhupathi and Bopanna said in a joint statement. "As a result, we have maintained our position as one of the top men's doubles teams in the world."
It is not immediately clear whether Bhupathi will get to partner Sania Mirza in mixed doubles, despite the pair having won the French Open this month.
The deadline for sending in entries is Thursday.