Is there any obvious parallel between Leander Paes and Sushil Kumar? Yes, both have won Olympic medals and both are aspiring to make a last hurrah at the Rio Games.
Paes is looking forward to his seventh Olympic Games and Sushil his fourth. Paes had clinched a bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games to give Indian sport a big boost and Sushil has back-to-back medals, bronze at Beijing and silver at London.
Both are fighting desperately to make it to Rio and both know their destiny is not in their hands. Paes is at the mercy of Rohan Bopanna, who if he finishes among the top 10 doubles players in the world, will have the right to pick his Rio partner while the world’s top women’s doubles player Sania Mirza, in any case, can choose between Paes and Bopanna as her mixed doubles partner.
Sushil is battling it out on a different court, the Delhi High Court, pleading for a fair trial with the young man who earned the Olympic quota for the country, Narsingh Pancham Yadav. The public sympathies are with Yadav whereas Sushil is betting on his terrific reputation.
Both Paes and Sushil will know their fate on Monday when the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings will be announced and that would be taken as cut off for the Rio Games. The same day the Delhi High Court is likely tell Sushil whether he has a case for a trial or not.
The one big difference between the two is that Paes has been fighting hard to stay afloat, playing even in Challenger tournaments, while Sushil for some strange reason or poor advice stayed off the competitive mat for close to two years stating a shoulder injury, which many suspect was to avoid grappling with Narsingh.
Incongruously, the day he won his 11th Grand Slam mixed doubles title at Roland Garros with Swiss Martina Hingis to complete a career Grand Slam, Paes’ opponents across the net, compatriot Sania Mirza and Ivan Dodig, may have damaged his chances of playing in Rio long before the final.
In a crazy musical chairs, Paes would have loved Dodig winning with Brazilian Marcelo Melo his men’s doubles semi-final against Spaniards Felician Lopez and Marcelo Lopez! The Bosnian-born Croat lost out heavily to defend his clay-court points as reigning French Open champion by failing and that might push Bopanna into the top 10 from his current 11th position. It was the Dodig-Melo pair that beat Bopanna and his Romanian partner Florin Mergea in an earlier round.
The only other player who could have kept Bopanna out of top 10, Bruno Soares, also lost, pairing up with Jamie Murray. Curiously, the fourth seeds were knocked out by none other than Paes partnering Pole Marcin Matkowski over two tie-breaks in the pre-quarter-finals!
The combined ranking of Paes and Bopanna would not have fetched them a direct entry into the draw and both in the last couple of months fought hard to garner some crucial points to improve their rankings.
Things are falling into place with Bopanna timing his media interviews perfectly. His comments are in variance with what Paes had said six months ago.
If Paes felt he and Bopanna had a great chance of winning a medal, the latter is now keen on choosing his own partner, that by inference not necessarily one of the best-ever doubles exponents. Bopanna knew if he is not among the top 10, he will have no coice but to play with Paes.
Now that he is most likely to finish among the top ten, who does Bopanna prefer to partner? All indications are that he might choose Saket Maineni, currently ranked 128, though Bopanna had partnered with Paes to play four Davis Cup doubles ties.
Sania has a great chance of winning the mixed doubles medal whever she partners with. Sania, perhaps, would like to tell the All-India Tennis Association (AITA) that this time there should not be any repetition of London, where she was forced to partner Paes as a compromise so that Bopanna could play with Mahesh Bhupathi in the men’s doubles.
Though she might prefer to play a with the younger Bopanna, she might be in two minds after seeing the fantastic play by Paes from across the net in the French Open final on Friday.
What are India’s chances of winning a tennis medal? For six Olympics after Paes’ bronze, every succeeding Olympics promised a medal with Paes and his long-standing partner Mahesh Bhupathi promising it. The closet the two came to grabbing a medal in their five attempts was at Athens where they lost the bronze play-off to Croatia’s Mario Ancic and Ivan Lubicic, now Roger Federer’s coach.
Sushil has left himself with no ifs and buts, unless the court takes a view different from public perception. Sushil had vowed to take the fight till the end whatever that may mean.
The saga of two of the greatest Indian Olympians is likely to have a couple of more twists and turns before the dust settles down. Much of it will be played in the media studios and columns.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])