London – None of India's top players want to play with him and he has been called “a backstabber” by his former friend, but on Thursday Leander Paes's only concern was whether his novice partner at the Olympics had the right shoes to compete.
The doubles specialist has been at the centre of an angry row within Indian tennis over who would partner whom in the tennis competitions at the London Games.
His former doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi threatened to boycott the Olympics if he was forced to play with Paes and not with regular tour partner Rohan Bopanna.
The All India Tennis Association (Aita), who had originally intended to send only one men's doubles team, eventually bowed to pressure, pairing Bhupathi and Bopanna together while teaming Paes up with Vishnu Vardhan, a 24-year-old, ranked 209 in doubles.
To add fuel to the already raging fire, Aita picked Paes to play with Sania Mirza in the mixed doubles, which prompted the 25-year-old to accuse the federation of using her as “bait” as she usually partners Bhupathi at the slams.
On Thursday, Paes addressed the issue and spoke to reporters at Wimbledon with a prepared statement saying he was interested in playing “sport and not politics”.
He said he did not want to speak any further on the matter but eventually opened up about his main concerns heading into his sixth Olympics.
“It is the dream of any young Indian kid to play and no-one is going to stop me from that,” the 39-year-old, a singles bronze medallist in 1996, said.
“I have been the only player that qualified directly for the Olympics from India and for me that is a great honour. I have already got an Olympic medal in singles and it is the greatest joy.
“Every Olympics has some nonsense coming with it. For me I know how much hard work goes into what I do and people chose to respect it and I am very lucky that most of India does. If people chose to disrespect it then that is their choice.”
The row originally erupted when Bhupathi said he would not even consider going to the Games if he had to play with Paes, a partnership that had worked to great effect in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
They won the French Open and Wimbledon in 1999 before claiming a second Roland Garros title two years later, but their relationship deteriorated and they ceased to play together on the tour circuit from 2002.
They played together at the Australian Open in 2011 and Paes attended Bhupathi's wedding to former Miss Universe Lara Dutta.
They went through another acrimonious split following the season-ending World Tour Finals in November, a decision that prompted Bhupathi to call Paes “a backstabber”.
Paes's partner at the Olympics is Vardhan, who has never played in a grand slam or competed in the Games.
“The only one that I need to worry about is Vishnu,” Paes added. “The poor boy is 307 (sic) in the world and I don't even know if he has grasscourt shoes.
“So it is like a bit of a tough one. He is a really good kid and I am very happy to play with him whatever the obstacles are that I see they are going to be many.
“He has never been at Wimbledon before. Trying to get him the right shoes, whatever I can do as an experienced professional athlete to help my partners out I do.
“One of the things I pride myself on having played with over 90 different partners on the men's side alone is I always get my partners to play better.
“I am just hoping that as much as I have been given a young boy who I really like a lot with no experience at all, number 307 or whatever his ranking is today, whatever the obstacles are when you are playing for your country, your country comes first,” added Paes, who according to Indian media reports had threatened to pull out of the Olympics after he was paired with Vardhan.
Paes was also diplomatic when asked why some of his playing relationships had gone bad.
“I think that is life. When you are put on this world if everything was really sour or really sweet it wouldn't be as much fun.
“You are going to be judged on the whole career and that is the reason I am clearly very happy to play for the country...
“Being a professional athlete when you are in the limelight everything gets magnified, but if you look at anyone I am sure they have all had things that have gone good and bad.”
Paes completed his collection of men's doubles grand-slam titles when he triumphed at the Australian Open in January with Czech Radek Stepanek with whom he is currently playing at Wimbledon.
He was given direct entry into the Olympic doubles thanks to his top-10 ranking, whereas Bhupathi and Bopanna qualified because of their ranking as a team. – Reuters