Like Cricket, Tennis is a game which was brought to India as a result of the British Empire. It’s most vital origins can be traced back to the 1880′s when civilian officers exhibited greater interest in the game. As a result some tournaments were soon initiated such as the Punjab Lawn Tennis Championship (1885) and the Bengal Lawn Tennis Championship (1887). These are simple facts that you will find about after googling “Tennis in India”.
What you will not find is that, like Cricket, the game was initially a monopoly of the rich and gentlemanly class. But unlike Cricket, Tennis has failed to get a grip of the masses in India and still, after 120 years of its inception, remains a game for the elite class. However, the last decade has saw a transformation which was mainly led by the arrival of a young Hyderabadi girl in the game. However, great the game itself maybe – it has always been the players who have engrossed the masses and brought it to the pedestal that it stands.
This transformation was certainly needed as Tennis was a game restricted to a certain few and why it could not adapt itself as quickly as cricket could can have many answers. Not going into that much, the most probable might be the fact that it cannot be really practiced in the narrow lanes that Indian middle class occupies. In addition to that, there was not so much economic superfluity until now that parents might actually consider their children for coaching or even provide them with any exposure to fancy games like lawn tennis.
To flip the pages of history and dust off some archives, we would find our tennis icons gradually contributing in this larger transformation or rather making the picture bits by bits. Paul Bailey says of one such icon, “Ramesh Krishnan, like his father Ramanathan before him, was brought up to play tennis for its own sake. Touch players such as the Krishnans often came from wealthy families, with little hunger for self-improvement and financial success.”
Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan
Ramanathan Krishnan played Tennis in the 1950′s and 60′s , putting India on the Tennis Map winning boy’s singles Wimbledon Title in 1954. He has the distinction beating Rod Laver (Davis Cup, 1959) among many other greats and was held as a top player in his time.
When the decade of the 60′s dawned Ramanathan played at his peak form reaching consecutively in ’60 and ’61 the semi-finals of the Wimbledon. He entered both these Wimbledon’s seeded 7th and lost a step before the Finals unfortunately. He is known for his elegant touch play and drop shots, and many critics have called Roger Federer his descendant.
Ramanathan’s achievement is furthered in the fact that he trained his son Ramesh Krishnan to become the player he was. By the time Ramesh began playing, there was greater competition to cope with and higher standards. He proved upto the task reaching the quarter finals of three grand slams in the 1980′s. Before that he had repeated his father’s feat of winning the boy’s singles Wimbledon title, and furthered it by winning the French Open boy’s title too. Ramesh was an integral part of India’s Davis Cup team and had an impeccable record of 29-21 wins!
Vijay Amritraj is a familiar face in those Indian households who have begun to take a deep interest in televised grand slam events and recognize him as co-anchor with Alan Wilkins, who commentates with his crystal clear voice and gives the audience a perspective on Roger Federer’s exquisite backhand.
As a player Amritraj gave India a presence in the 70′s as he reached two quarter finals of Grand Slam events. It was then followed by a lean patch at the Grand Slams until 1981 when he repeated the same feat but meanwhile he continued winning singles titles amassing 16 titles by the end of his illustrious career. He attained a career high ranking of 16 in 1980.
Vijay Amritraj has done a lot for Indian Tennis over the years and can be looked at as one who has played a key role in the transformation i am talking about. His being a part celebrity with small role in the Bond film Octopussy also helped the cause in a small way.
Any discussion on Indian Tennis greats must pass through these two names and if the perspective is of an Indian fan, the two would be talked together. The teaming up of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes for India at Davis Cups and as a team at Grand Slams has been very successful. This is where the medium of television being the moderator brought Tennis to our homes and these two were our protagonists.
Leander Paes stands out for his Bronze Medal at the 1992 Olympics in Men’s Singles. He has 6 Grand Slam Men’s Doubles Titles, 3 of which are with Mahesh. He won his latest title at the US Open 2009. Along with this he has 6 Mixed Doubles Titles as well out of which 2 are with Martina Navratilova and 3 with Cara Black. However, Paes has only one singles ATP title.
Mahesh Bhupathi on the other hand has been an equal and complementary force in Indian Tennis. He has won 11 Grand Slam Doubles Titles including 4 Men’s Doubles and 7 Mixed Doubles. He won 3 of his Men’s doubles titles with Leander. Mahesh Bhupathi is also a mentor to Sania Mirza and won his most recent Mixed Doubles title with her at the 2009 Australian Open.
It is a huge huge exaggeration to add her in an extension of this list which has more illustrious names, but fortunately Sania Mirza finds herself here because of her larger contribution to the game’s popularity in India as a symbol of gender empowerment, modern Muslim sensibility and the rise of the middle class. She has one Mixed Doubles Title with Mahesh Bhupathi and was runner up at the 2008 Mixed Doubles Australian Open.
These sportsmen have moved Tennis in Indian gradually to a position where it enjoys widespread fan following and a few very loyal supporters. A young breed of Tennis Players like Somdev Devvarman and Prakash Amritraj have been doing their best to propel Tennis even further. It seems like India needs a breakthrough singles player and will accelerate this process much more.Published 23 Apr 2011, 16:32 IST