Leander Paes | How India's greatest Olympic hero turned into its biggest villain

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© Twitter - Leander Paes

Leander Paes | How India's greatest Olympic hero turned into its biggest villain

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Arun S Kaimal

08/07/2016

You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain – Dark Knight (2008).

It was supposed to be the perfect swansong for India's greatest Olympic athlete. A man, who ended India’s four-decade long barren run of medals in the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, deserved to make his last hurrah in the Olympics at Rio. A record seventh appearance made it even sweeter. But, it all came crashing down all too soon, and the exit of Paes and Bopanna in the first round has left every Indian with a bitter taste in his mouth. A story which started with politics and controversies ended with even more surrounding it.

Everyone knew that the pairing would be a disaster from the start. Leander Paes would never have reached Rio for his record seventh appearance, if Rohan Bopanna had his wish. Bopanna, who qualified for Rio because of his top-10 position in the ATP doubles rankings, had also won the liberty to choose any partner he wanted for the Olympics with his qualification. The Bangalorean and Leander Paes were never the best of friends, and although Leander Paes was ranked No.46 in doubles rankings at that time, Bopanna picked 125th ranked Saketh Myneni as his preference in a letter to the All India Tennis Association (AITA).

Bopanna’s decision was baffling, to say the least. Paes had the experience of six Olympics and umpteen number of Grand Slams, and more than that he remains the only Indian tennis player to stand on the Olympic podium. But, the relationship between the two had reached unsolvable heights, and Bopanna knew that he would not have reached anywhere with Paes by his side.

I have much admiration for Leander Paes and his many achievements but I do not believe our styles of play are either compatible or complementary."

Rohan Bopanna

"I have much admiration for Leander Paes and his many achievements but I do not believe our styles of play are either compatible or complementary. Considering that this is a team event where two individuals need to gel together to do well, regardless of individual achievements, it is the team and the combination that matters," he had written in his letter.

Also, read: Birth of a legend: Leander Paes at the Atlanta Olympics

Cajoling and manoeuvring by the AITA ensued, and the selection committee opted to pair up Paes and Bopanna in the men’s doubles event with the duo being India’s “best-bet” for a medal in the event. Bopanna and Sania were selected to pair up in the mixed doubles event, and it seemed that everything will be fine come Rio.

But, things only got worse from there on. Having played just seven matches together in the past, many expected Bopanna and Paes to reach Rio early in order to prepare for their event. With a potential medal for India at stake, it was not an unwarranted expectation. However, 43-year-old Paes, who was making his record seventh Olympics appearance at Rio, behaved like a prepubescent teenager and arrived just less than 24 hours before the Opening ceremony.

The World Team Tennis tournament in the USA kept Leander Paes busy as Bopanna went around the courts in Rio to find a training partner. In fact, the Indian tennis team did not even have a clue about when Paes will arrive. His partner Bopanna and captain Zeeshan Ali had smiled helplessly when they were asked when Paes would arrive.

When he finally arrived on Thursday evening at Rio, the controversy about a room took over the news. Whether Leander Paes refused to stay with Rohan Bopanna or not is immaterial, but arriving just two days before the first game did no favour to enhance the reputation of the former Olympic medallist. The veteran then blamed the media for “baseless reporting” and took a pot-shot at Bopanna and Mirza for arriving early.

I was playing and winning so I was not here to practice. And they (Bopanna or other India players) came early because they lost early. It was certainly not because they were here to play together."

Leander Paes

“I was playing and winning so I was not here to practice. And they (Bopanna or other India players) came early because they lost early. It was certainly not because they were here to play together,” Paes had said.

It was a ridiculous comment from a veteran of seven Olympics. With the comment, he not only tried to justify his late arrival, but he also questioned Bopanna and Mirza’s commitment for arriving early.

The saga between the two did not end there. With an early game in the offering on Saturday, Rohan Bopanna opted to skip the opening ceremony, along with Sania Mirza, Prarthana Thombare, and the Indian men’s hockey team. While his partner gave the ceremony a miss, Paes chose to be a part of it even after knowing about the early match.

The selfies and videos from the veteran tennis star during the ceremony were intriguing to watch, but when he along with Bopanna took the court next day, what everyone feared unfolded. A tame first-round exit ended India’s hopes of a medal in the men’s doubles and the disappointment doubled when Sania Mirza and Prarthana Thombare also bowed out of the women’s doubles. To add insult into injury, Paes’ played the victim card once again after his exit rather than ruing the missed opportunity. He then termed his appearance as a celebration of his career - this disappointing and embarrassing first-round exit cannot be termed a celebration of anything.

 © Gettyimages

However, this is not the first time. Although the future of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna in the mixed doubles are yet to be decided, Indian tennis contingent’s campaign at Rio currently feels almost like deja vu - a repeat of what we saw in 2012.

Back in 2012, both Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna refused to partner Paes at London Olympics, and with Bopanna and Bhupathi sticking to their stand of going to the Olympics as a pair, the AITA decided to send two men’s doubles teams to Rio. To cajole Paes, who threatened to pull out of the Olympics, of losing out on Bopanna as partner, the AITA used Sania Mirza as a “bait” and paired up Paes with her in the mixed doubles. A disastrous Olympic campaign followed and with all the bad blood between them, neither pair managed to go beyond the pre-quarter-finals.

The story is likely to repeat once again, this time. Unless Bopanna and Mirza return with a medal from Rio, the headlines around Indian tennis will once again be around the Leander Paes saga. Many regarded Paes as a victim four years back, but our greatest Olympic hero, who travelled to Rio basking in the glory of a record seventh appearance, will surely return to India as the villain in this tragi-comic drama that has unfolded in Rio.

Also, read : The legend of Leander Paes - 5 unique records of the Olympian

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