As the ex­cite­ment builds up at the 128th Wim­ble­don Cham­pi­onships, In­dian ten­nis leg­ends re­count their as­so­ci­a­tion with the only Grand Slam played on grass

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Wellness - by Aasheesh Sharma

S LICED BACK­HANDS meet boom­ing serves as cham­pi­ons glide across the grass, grunt­ing like gla­di­a­tors and wield­ing graphite sabres to un­leash light­ning vol­leys on lush green courts. Off the court, the stands are a med­ley of mu­si­cians, movie stars, con­nois­seurs and com­mon­ers.

As the ex­cite­ment builds up at Lon­don’s All Eng­land Club for the 128th Wim­ble­don Cham­pi­onships, a wiz­ened 77-year-old ten­nis vet­eran is stay­ing up late at Chen­nai’s up­scale Oliver Road neigh­bour­hood to root for Swiss mae­stro, Roger Fed­erer.

The Kr­ish­nans’, In­dian ten­nis’s first fam­ily, have cre­ated a pri­vate court at their My­la­pore res­i­dence, one of the few nat­u­ral grass courts in the coun­try, where Ra­manathan Kr­ish­nan and his son Ramesh, 53, re­live mem­o­ries of the silken brand of touch-ten­nis that the fa­ther and son per­fected dur­ing their more than 30-year-long as­so­ci­a­tion with the cham­pi­onship. “Al­though all four of the quar­tet of present-day stars – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Mur­ray and Roger Fed­erer – are equally good, Roger is a champ. I like him for the smooth­ness of his strokes that stands out at Wim­ble­don,” says Ra­manathan about Fed­erer, who is car­ry­ing for­ward the tra­di­tion of clas­si­cal stylists, who ruled people’s hearts be­fore graphite rac­quets and the slam­bang serve-vol­ley rou­tine wrenched the aes­thet­ics out of ten­nis.

When In­dian ten­nis’s orig­i­nal touch artist, the best sin­gles player to have stepped on the hal­lowed turf, talks about Wim­ble­don, you’ve got to pay at­ten­tion. “It was Ramesh’s idea to cre­ate a grass court in Chen­nai as a trib­ute to Wim­ble­don. The cham­pi­onships are dear to both of us. For the last few years, we place the tele­vi­sion at the court and watch the ac­tion from here,” says Ra­manathan, who reached the Wim­ble­don semi-fi­nals in 1960, los­ing to even­tual cham­pion and for­mer world num­ber one, Neale Fraser. The next year, he again made it to the last four, beat­ing Roy Emer­son in straight sets, but lost in the semis to even­tual cham­pion and ten­nis leg­end Rod Laver. “My fond­est mem­ory of the cham­pi­onships is my vic­tory over Emer­son,” says Kr­ish­nan Se­nior. “He was on his way to cre­at­ing a record of win­ning 13 Grand Slam ti­tles, which stood for a long time. If I re­mem­ber cor­rectly, it was Pete Sam­pras who broke it,” says Ra­manathan.

Ramesh Kr­ish­nan, who in­her­ited the legacy of deft touch-ten­nis that his fa­ther pi­o­neered (along with Mex­ico’s Rafael Osuna and Italy’s Ni­cola Pi­etrangeli), be­came the ju­niors cham­pion at Wim­ble­don in 1979. Ramesh gets nos­tal­gic as he rem­i­nisces about his best per­for­mance in 1986, when he reached the quar­ter-fi­nals, beat­ing sixth-seeded Swede Joakim Nys­tröm on

Ra­manathan Kr­ish­nan, who made it to two suc­ces­sive semi-fi­nals in the cham­pi­onships in 1960 and 1961, is our great­est sin­gles player at Wim­ble­don

the way. “There’s a cer­tain time­less­ness about play­ing at the Cen­tre Court. It is a won­der­ful mix­ture of tra­di­tion and glam­our, and a won­der­ful gar­den party. Don’t for­get, it’s still played on a lawn. The mod­ern game, af­ter all, be­gan as lawn ten­nis,” Ramesh points out.

Old-World Niceties

Au­thor Irvine Welsh once wrote about In­dian ten­nis icon Naresh Ku­mar, that he had seen more Wim­ble­dons than Welsh had seen book­ies’ of­fices. Welsh wasn’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing. Ku­mar played at Wim­ble­don in 20 con­sec­u­tive cham­pi­onships be­tween 1949 and 1968. The dou­bles specialist, who once led Rod Laver in a firstround match at Wim­ble­don in 1960, says the tour­na­ment is still firmly an­chored in the old world. “Also, I have fond mem­o­ries of the place. Dur­ing the 101 matches that I played at Wim­ble­don, I was for­tu­nate enough to play against all the great cham­pi­ons of my time.”

The high noon of Ku­mar’s Wim­ble­don ex­ploits came in 1958, when along with Ra­manathan Kr­ish­nan, he beat de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons Budge Patty and Gard­nar Mul­loy, who had emerged tri­umphant in 1957. “We had our pic­tures in the Lon­don Times. It cre­ated quite a stir back home,” says Ku­mar.

Ac­cord­ing to Ku­mar, the best In­dian player to fea­ture at Wim­ble­don is none other than his erst­while dou­bles part­ner. “Ra­manathan, who made it to two suc­ces­sive semi-fi­nals in the cham­pi­onships in 1960 and 1961, has the great­est record in sin­gles play there.”

A new gen­er­a­tion of In­dian ten­nis cham­pi­ons vouches that Wim­ble­don is still the most cov­eted Grand Slam. Ma­hesh Bhu­pathi, 40, for in­stance, was the men’s dou­bles cham­pion in 1999 with Le­an­der Paes. He also won the mixed dou­bles in 2002, with Elena Likhovt­seva and

In­dian Ten­nis Stars @Wim­ble­don

1. Le­an­der Paes and Ma­hesh Bhu­pathi won the men’s dou­bles ti­tle in 1999

2. In­dian ten­nis great, Vi­jay Am­ri­traj made it to the sin­gles quar­ter-fi­nals twice: in 1973 and 1981

3. In 1973, Premjit Lall gave five-time Wim­ble­don cham­pion Björn Borg a quite a scare

4. Ra­manathan Kr­ish­nan, In­dia’s most suc­cess­ful player in sin­gles, reached the semi-fi­nals for two suc­ces­sive years in 1960 and 1961

5. Sa­nia Mirza won the Wim­ble­don girls’ dou­bles ti­tle in 2003 6. Ramesh Kr­ish­nan won the ju­niors ti­tle in 1979 7. Jaidip Muk­er­jea made it to the men’s dou­bles quar­ter-fi­nals three times re­peated the feat three years later, this time part­ner­ing with Mary Pierce. “Play­ing Wim­ble­don is spe­cial, win­ning a ti­tle there is a dream and be­ing able to win three times was amaz­ing,” he says. Ask Bhu­pathi about the en­dur­ing ap­peal of Wim­ble­don and he jokes: “It’s like ask­ing a crick­eter why it is spe­cial play­ing at the Lord’s!”

Rules And The Big W

When Sa­nia Mirza, ranked World No. 6 in women’s dou­bles, was a gan­gly ado­les­cent in Hy­der­abad, she looked up to Ger­man cham­pion Steffi Graf for in­spi­ra­tion and was fas­ci­nated with the way Fräulein Forehand de­mol­ished her ri­vals at Wim­ble­don. Mirza, 27, says that even to­day, af­ter spend­ing more than a decade on the cir­cuit, play­ing at the Wim­ble­don is a spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ence. “Its aura is dif­fer­ent. As you grow up, you dream of play­ing here. The clothes and grass are very dif­fer­ent from the other slams,” says Mirza. The world’s old­est ten­nis tour­na­ment has an all-white, some say stuffy dress code. A few years ago, Radek Stepanek was or­dered to change his shoes ahead of a match against Novak Djokovic since they were deemed too colourful. Be­fore that, An­dre Agassi skipped Wim­ble­don from 1988 to 1990, re­port­edly protest­ing against its out­dated cloth­ing rules. But then he came around, dis­ap­point­ingly con­formed and won here in 1992.

Over the years, the po­tent serve and vol­ley cock­tail dished out by Boris Becker, Pete Sam­pras, Novak Djokovic and Andy Mur­ray, among oth­ers, has lent a new di­men­sion to the cham­pi­onships. What hasn’t changed, says Ra­manathan Kr­ish­nan, is the old-world charm and hos­pi­tal­ity with which the tour­na­ment is hosted. “Wim­ble­don is a slice of his­tory. The hosts or­gan­ise the tour­na­ment beau­ti­fully. They treat No.1 and the un­seeded player in the same man­ner. Of course, the cham­pi­ons are granted some priv­i­leges such as Cen­tre Court ap­pear­ances. But other­wise, it is still the most egal­i­tar­ian tour­na­ment in the world, where the or­gan­i­sa­tion is a mas­ter­piece,” says the grand old man of In­dian ten­nis.

The pro­tag­o­nists might have changed over the last 127 years, but the alchemy and at­mos­phere of Wim­ble­don con­tinue to cast its spell over the rac­quet ma­gi­cians.








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