Updated: July 15, 2020 8:05:41 am
A spearhead of Indian tennis for many years, Somdev Devvarman has also been vocal for the cause of players in the country. In a candid chat with The Indian Express, the former India no 1 talks about the need for athletes to speak up about issues in their sport, the rift in the team caused by the relationship between doubles legends Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi and the inefficiency of former All India Tennis Association (AITA) president Anil Khanna in developing the sport.
Players may not want to express views publicly, but is there an acknowledgement of issues when they are among themselves?
I think so. At the end of the day, at least for me personally, if I am in a living room situation or having a meal with someone, I don’t see the point of not being honest. But you can’t do it silently, especially when you are dealing with an organisation that has a history like the Khannas at the AITA. This guy named a stadium on government land the RK Khanna Tennis Stadium. And no one’s talking about it. Then you go out there, shake his hand and pretend like he’s the saviour of tennis. And now his sons are being groomed for the same thing. It’s nonsense. These guys don’t care about tennis. I mean, they never have.
The other day I was talking about age fraud. For me, it comes down to incompetence. These guys at the top have no motivation to work. They have no idea to work and they don’t care if the system gets better. So why will it? If the players don’t stand together and say enough is enough then nothing is going to change. Look at the captain (Rohit Rajpal) right now. What business does he have in international tennis based on how long he has been out of it? I mean it is a joke. It’s an absolute joke. And if you can’t call a spade a spade then what is the point of being a good player.
Was there a divide in the Davis Cup team when you started playing?
Basically, before the Davis Cup ties in 2008, it’s no secret that there was almost a rebellion against Leander Paes, who was captain at the time. I think Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna, Prakash Amritraj and maybe someone else, said they didn’t want Leander to be captain. They had asked me to join in at the time as well but I was still in college and I told them straight up, ‘Guys, I have never been a fan of the Lee-Hesh kind of situation and I’m still in college so please keep me out of it. You guys go ahead and do what you want to do but keep me out of it.’
This was in February 2008, against Uzbekistan on grass in Delhi. The next tie they played against Japan, Prakash and Rohan won (the first two singles rubbers and Leander and Mahesh won the doubles), but right after that tie (was secured) they said they won’t play with Leander anymore. And I was still this guy who was coming in and out of the team – I wasn’t a permanent fixture on the team.
I joined the team at the end of 2008 in a tie against Romania and then in 2009, we played a tie against Chinese Taipei. It became very clear to me that the entire Davis Cup team was a Leander team.
One of the people I have the utmost respect for is Vece Paes (Leander’s father), no one in Indian tennis, in my opinion, would have anything negative to say against this guy. But you do the math – Leander’s dad was the team doctor, Sanjay Singh (Paes’ trainer) was the team masseuse but he wasn’t a physio, which is the problem because in a tie, let’s say I turn my ankle or my knee or my shoulder, you need physio and not a masseuse. There’s a big difference between the two. Nandan Bal was the coach who at the time – if there was a Leander-Mahesh camp, Bal was on the Leander camp. It didn’t seem to me that things were being fairly done and I spoke out after about two or three ties.
With all the mess and controversy that has surrounded Davis Cup ties in India, especially with team selection, do you feel that among the younger players, there might be a reluctance to play because of such things happening?
It might happen. All these problems we’re talking about aren’t India-centric. If you follow world tennis, and Davis Cup stories worldwide, it’s happening in a lot of countries. Dudi Sela from Israel, who has made the semis with his country, has had problems with his federation for years.
Getting on flights for 15-16 hours isn’t easy and keep in mind players aren’t playing ten tournaments a year – they’re playing 30-35 tournaments a year. A lot of times these players don’t have any guarantee that they’ll play, so in some cases, I’d be interested to see what Sumit (Nagal) is thinking of this situation. He’s gone into ties thinking he’s going to play and he’s not played. And now he’s gone from that tie to God knows where for a tournament.
Has there ever been a case where players stood up together for a cause?
If you go back to 2013, the Davis Cup tie between India and South Korea in Delhi, it was the first time in the history of Indian tennis that 11 players boycotted the Davis Cup tie. We boycotted it not because we did not want India to win, but we boycotted because we were sick and tired of the way the AITA was behaving. Sick and tired.
We would go up to the AITA and ask for transparency in money like a million times. Every time all the players would get different amounts. Why was it happening? Were they trying to divide and rule? Well, we just felt that enough was enough and we boycotted. More importantly, after the boycott, we lost to Korea. But lo and behold, right after the loss everything changed, until now obviously. Now it has gone back to the old system as clearly there seems to be a lack of leadership amongst the players.
Korea was the tie we played in February 2013, we played a tie in April against Indonesia, and by that time all the players were getting paid the same. There were six players in the squad and the top-4 flew business class and everybody got a stipend. We got the physios we wanted. We didn’t get the coaches and captains we wanted but there was basically a negotiation that was happening. So it is possible to go out there and make a change.
The 2013 tie that we boycotted was a lot about the money that was being distributed but also about who was getting these positions and why they were getting them. I was under the impression that it should be fair and the players should have a say. And keep in mind that by this point, we were the ones playing singles. The times that India has made the World Group in Davis Cup, myself and Rohan Bopanna were the singles players. And I don’t need to remind everybody that in Davis Cup, four points are for singles and one point for doubles. Despite all of this, it seemed like all the attention was going in the other direction and I didn’t think that was fair, so I felt it was fair to speak up.
You’re telling me that in the middle of a Leander and Mahesh crisis if people in the Davis Cup team are all pro-Leander, you think that’s not going to create a rift? I’m not pro-Mahesh or pro-Leander but it seemed pretty clear to me that a change needed to be made.
When you first joined the team, were you happy with the composition of the team in terms of support staff?
When I was in the Davis Cup team, certain members were told to just stay away from me. There were certain people in the training staff that I said I do not want to have anything to do with you guys. And that was it. We got them out of the team. Keep in mind, these people had kept their positions in the team for years and years.
But based on what? How do we actually get better? None of these people had any sort of experience in international tennis and neither did they want to. As long as players remain quiet, I don’t see change happening, in any sport. This actually begs a good question. Are players, across all sports, happy with the way things are run in the current system? If the answer is yes, makes sense. If the answer is no, then why are you quiet? What are you so scared of? Look at the number of players in Indian tennis that have remained quiet and haven’t made anything out of it. It infuriates me, to be honest.
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