NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sania Mirza has accused the India tennis federation of using her as “bait” to placate doubles specialist Leander Paes as discontent continues to rumble over the country’s controversial selection process for the Olympics.
The All India Tennis Association (AITA) was forced to enter two men’s doubles teams for London instead of one after both Mahesh Bhupathi and regular partner Rohan Bopanna refused to join up with the country’s top-ranked doubles player Paes.
Last Thursday, AITA defused the row by announcing that Paes would play with Vishnu Vardhan while the Bhupathi-Bopanna partnership would remain intact for the July 27-August 12 Games.
The federation also said Paes would partner Sania Mirza in the mixed doubles, something perceived as a compromise for the men’s doubles world number seven after AITA’s plan to send the strongest men’s team on paper came undone.
“...what I find disillusioning is the humiliating manner in which I was put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis,” Mirza said in a statement late on Tuesday.
The whole episode reeked of “male chauvinism”, the 25-year-old added, feeling she had been “offered as compensation to partner one of the feuding champions to lure him into accepting to play with a men’s player he does not wish to play with”.
“This kind of blatant humiliation of Indian womanhood needs to be condemned even if it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country,” added Mirza, who moved to Dubai following her marriage to former Pakistan cricket captain Shoaib Malik.
Mirza, who won the French Open mixed doubles title with Bhupathi this month, conceded that she was ready to play with whoever AITA paired her with and the decision would not affect her performance in London.
“...I can assure all my countrymen that I shall never allow these difficult circumstances to come in the way of giving my very best when the Games begin,” she said.
The tennis federation responded by stating Mirza and Paes had been put together “purely on merit”.
“AITA respects all its players and is fully aware of the accomplishments of Sania Mirza as an excellent tennis player,” federation secretary Bharat Oza said in a statement on Wednesday.
”AITA believes that Leander and Sania together are capable of producing fantastic results at the Olympics.
“We earnestly appeal to all the players to unite together, shed off all their differences, stop going public and join hands together in the best national interest of winning medals for the country and to bring glory to the nation,” Oza added.
Bhupathi slammed the authorities by saying “things couldn’t have got uglier for us in Indian tennis the last week”.
“It’s unbelievable situation they have put her in and I obviously sympathise with Sania. I feel for her in her letter,” Bhupathi told reporters after he and Bopanna reached the second round of the men’s doubles at Wimbledon.
”As far as I‘m concerned, I‘m committed to her. We’re playing here, and if we get a chance to, we will play the Olympics. Obviously in her letter she clearly stated that we have won two grand slam titles (together, including) two weeks ago (in Paris).
”Everyone seems to think that I‘m the one manipulating and pulling the strings for all these extremely individual and successful tennis players like Rohan and Sania. It’s not true.
“From our point of view, he (Paes) definitely being the No. 1 player in India, deserves to go. But he needs to deserve to go with someone who wants to play with him.”
Mirza, who has dropped to 246th in the WTA singles rankings, won her only tournament at the Hyderabad Open in 2005 and was once ranked 27th in the world.
Former Indian player Vijay Amritraj said the situation could have been avoided.
“I’ve tried to stay out of it but what I would say is that whatever decision they were going to make should have been made earlier,” Amritraj said at Wimbledon.
“It’s already too late. I can understand players’ concerns because if you have been playing with someone all year as a partnership then you would want to play with them at the Olympics. It’s very unfortunate.”
Addtional reporting by Pritha Sarkar and Martyn Herman in London, Editing by Ed Osmond