Round one of the 1956 Wimbledon Championships and crowd favourite and 5th seed, Jaroslav Drobny, the 1954 Wimbledon champion, took on a young 19-year-old from India at Centre Court. The youngster had won the Wimbledon boys’ title two years earlier, but nobody thought that he stood any chance against the veteran left-hander, who was making his 13th appearance at SW19.
The Indian took the first set 6-1. Czechoslovakian Drobny equalised by winning the second set 6-4. However, the youngster then took control of the game winning the third and fourth sets 6-1, 6-4 and completing a remarkable upset. It was the first instance of Drobny losing in the first round at Wimbledon.
That youngster was none other than Ramanathan Krishnan, India’s best tennis singles player ever. Krishnan learned the skills and nuances of the game from his father, T.K. Ramanathan – who was ranked at number three in the country at one point – and credits him for his success.
Krishnan’s initial tennis education was done in Delhi, before his family relocated to Chennai and it was there that he really honed his skills. But he found very limited access to the sport as clubs generally disallowed boys under the age of 18.
He did manage to play at the tennis facility at Andhra Maha Sabha for a while, and he developed a decent fan following there because of his victories over older players. But that fact led to the senior players, unable to bear the embarrassment of being defeated by a kid, getting him barred from playing at the club, citing he was too young to use the facilities.
Undeterred, T.K. Ramanathan built a tennis court near his home to ensure that Krishnan’s coaching continued smoothly, and soon he started winning tournaments, which had much older players than him. He soon went on to make it big at the national level. He first came to prominence when he swept all the junior titles at the national circuit. In 1953, he won the National Tennis Championship at 16.
In 1954, he made his first mark in international tennis when he became the first Asian player to win the boys’ singles title at Wimbledon by defeating Ashley Cooper in the final; Cooper went on to win the 1958 Wimbledon men’s singles title.
However it was his victory over Drobny that brought the focus on him. And Krishnan didn’t look back after that. He reached a career-high ranking of world number three in 1960. In a distinguished career, he had victories over all top contemporary players like Rod Laver, Neale Fraser and Roy Emerson.
In the Grand Slams, Krishnan always reserved his best for Wimbledon, the tournament where he announced his arrival to the world. He could be considered unlucky to have not won the tournament despite some very impressive performances.
In 1959, Alex Olmedo won the men’s singles, but his toughest match was his third round game against Krishnan, which stretched to five sets. That performance earned Krishnan the seventh seed in 1960, and he made the semi-final (where he lost to eventual champion Neale Fraser).
He was seeded fifth in 1961, and reached the semi-final again, losing again to the eventual champion, this time Rod Laver. In 1962, Krishnan was seeded fourth, but an ankle injury meant he had to withdraw mid-tournament.
Krishnan featured regularly in the Indian Davis Cup team between 1953 and 1975. At the age of 16, because of his impressive performances in the national tournaments, he was selected in the team and made his debut in the tournament against Belgium.
Even though India lost the tie 0-5, Krishnan impressed everyone with his powerful game. Playing in the doubles match with Sumant Mishra, he gave a fighting performance to stretch the game to five sets.
Krishnan went on to win 50 singles matches in Davis Cup, which is still an Indian record, with victories over many top players. One of his best performances was in 1966 in the last reverse singles against the Brazilian Tomas Koch, which he won after being a set down, to help India progress to the Davis Cup challenger round. His performances were crucial for the Indian team’s progress to the final of the Davis Cup that year.
Krishnan was unable to win the Wimbledon men’s title, but his feat of reaching the semi-finals has still not been matched by an Indian since then. Nor was he able to win the Davis Cup for the country, but the finals appearance in 1966 has still not been bettered. India were the runners-up in 1974 and 1987. In 1974, India refused to play final against South Africa due to apartheid.
From a makeshift court in Chennai to the prestigious All England Club, it was quite an amazing journey for Ramanathan Krishnan. His feats have set the benchmark for the future Indian tennis players.
While Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza have achieved considerable success in the doubles arena, Krishnan’s achievements in singles are yet to be matched by any Indian tennis player.
Big things were expected from his son Ramesh Krishnan, who did make quarter-final appearances in Grand Slams and beat a few top players, but was unable to reach the heights scaled by his father, who even today is remembered for his scintillating performances and contributions that brought India at par with the powers in world tennis.