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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XXI No. 19, January 15-31, 2012
Krishnan entertains off the court
By Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy

Nirmal Shekar of The Hindu in conversation with Ramanathan Krishnan and Lalitha Krishnan.

In a country where sport was not considered a career option and at a time when cerebral excellence through academics was emphasised as the best option to shape a good career, he bunked the usual academic route and crafted his own path to become a world-class tennis player. That path is what Ramanathan Krishnan reminisced about in a chat with Nirmal Shekar, Sports Editor of The Hindu and Editor of Sportstar, at a Chennai Heritage lecture during Madras Week 2012.

"We are a tennis family for four generations," recounted Krishnan, who owes his initial training to his father T.K. Ramanathan, who took to tennis in the 1930s and played at the national level before becoming, in Krishnan's words, "the best Indian coach ever". Krishnan remembers his mother showing him a photograph of him clutching a tennis ball at the age of one. But it was his father who spotted his talent early and began coaching him in Delhi when Krishnan was 10 years old. In 1948, the Ramanathan family moved back to their hometown in Tenkasi, about 450 km south of Madras, and there Krishnan's father made sure that Krishnan played in all the tournaments around that sleepy town, taking him on a motorcycle to those matches, often played on cow-dung plastered courts.

In 1950, the family moved to Madras. The Andhra Maha Sabha, near Moore Market, was gracious enough to allow Krishnan to play on its courts after other clubs had refused to give him permission as he was under 18. When Krishnan regularly began to beat senior members, the Sabha amended its rules to make 18 the eligible age for players to use their courts. His father, however, refused to give up; he built a court at home where Krishnan could practise for hours.

When Krishnan learned about the Stanley Cup tournament for college students conducted by Loyola College, he sought permission to participate in it. His entry was refused, but the then Principal relented and allowed the 14-year-old school-boy Krishnan to play in 1951. To the surprise of many, he won the Cup that very year, beating the holder, Seshadri. "My career started with this tournament," Krishnan remembered. Thereafter, he made it a point to play matches regularly with senior players. "Playing and losing to them helped me shape my tennis," he recalled. Coached by his father, he went on to win the junior National title in 1953. Then he won the National title eight times at a stretch. "I am a product of competition," emphasised Krishnan, urging young players to play in tournaments as much as possible.

Krishnan sailed to England with his father in 1952 to take part in the junior Wimbledon championships. "It was chilly, windy and the rains would interrupt play," Krishnan said of his first acquaintance with Wimbledon. In a mix-up, he picked up the tennis racquet of another player and lost in the first round. He wept uncontrollably but did not reveal the racquet mix-up to his father. The resolute Krishnan, honed by his father and backed by steadfast practice, persisted and went on to win the junior Wimbledon title in 1954, the first Asian to do so.

Taking part in Wimbledon and Davis Cup was a regular feature of Krishnan's tennis life. In 1959 when he was ranked No. 3 in the world, after being the first Indian to play in a Wimbledon semi-final, professional tennis with big money was beginning to establish itself. Jack Kramer offered him US $150,000 to join his tour but Krishnan refused. "If I had accepted the offer, it would have meant not playing in Wimbledon and Davis Cup, which is where I wanted to make my mark," Krishnan said with a touch of pride. The offer remained open for three years and his staunch refusal surprised Jack Kramer. "I don't regret the decision even now," stressed Krishnan. "The prize money for winning the Wimbledon semifinal was a £30 voucher with which you could only buy articles," laughed Krishnan. Amateur players were not paid prize money then.

Those were the years when Krishnan's 'touch' tennis was described as 'pure Oriental charm' and 'Eastern magic'. Though not strong on serve, he relied on consistency and ground strokes, not so much on serve and volley, to beat his more aggressive opponents.

In 1966, India was playing Australia in the Davis Cup finals after surprising West Germany and Brazil. And Krishnan spent an almost sleepless night for the first time in his tennis career. "I was just not able to sleep," recounted Krishnan. He was 29 at the time. India lost to Australia. He vividly remembers India's popular woman tennis player Lakshmi Mahadevan, who too was coached by T.K. Ramanathan, arranging a racquet salute for him on his return from beating the Brazilians.

To the amusement of the audience, Krishnan took then back to a time when women played with their sarees. "They were shy," he said and joked, "imagine Sania playing with a saree around her." But Lakshmi Mahadevan broke that barrier and etched her name firmly in women's tennis in India.

Krishnan played exhibition matches throughout the country with stars such as Roy Emerson and Barry Mackay. "Roy Emerson had an ear and voice for music," Krishnan recalled, and went on to relate that he was once startled on the court to hear Emerson humming a Madurai Mani Iyer piece. Krishnan used to carry the records of MS, Madurai Mani Iyer, T.M. Soundararajan and many others whenever he travelled and would listen to them in his hotel room. Emerson, often his neighbour, had heard the music so often that he was able to hum two or three lines of most of the songs Krishnan played!

In Krishnan's day, when he travelled abroad, finding vegetarian food was a problem. Comparing his times with the present, he said that now dieticians accompany players and advise them what to eat, depending upon conditions. In his time, in the South, they would have regular sambar-rice for lunch and come out and play tennis in the afternoon. When Barry Mackay came to India to play in Visakhapatnam, they were given railway waiting room to relax in before the match. They finished their breakfast and stepped out to play. In the middle of the game, railway officials stopped Mackay. Krishnan, who was playing him, did not understand why. It was later found that Mackay had used a chair in the waiting room as a seat for the toilet by making a hole in the middle of it and the railway officers wanted his head for it!

Krishnan also recalled how, when he constructed a home tennis court for his son Ramesh, his wife Lalitha, adept at matters related to real estate, was entrusted with the job. His neighbour on Oliver Road was a Vairavan Chettiar, who was away on vacation when the court was being built. On Chettiar's return, Krishnan proudly showed his neighbour the new tennis court. After looking at it, Chettiar remarked, "It looks beautiful. The only problem is half of the court is on my land!"

Lalitha, who joined Krishnan in the conversation later, recalled how her grandmother reacted when her father announced that Krishnan was her suitor. She dismissed all the talk of his being a 'tennis star' and asked her father to check if Krishnan had a job. She was unhappy giving Lalitha in marriage to a 'jobless' man and had to be convinced later by her son.

Just as he had played against his father regularly, Krishnan participated in tournaments where he had to play Ramesh. And just as his father had beaten him in his early years, he often beat Ramesh in the years when he was developing as a top class player. He also recalled a final in which he played Ramanathan. As the match was in progress, the father began coaching the son instead of playing him. Krishnan won, of course. Krishnan was to do this later when playing his son.

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In this Issue

Is conservation on right track?
Neglect threatening QMC building
Beach, bins & beauty
Krishnan entertains off the court
In the Fort & outside...
Walking about with
Sriram V.
Collecting our memories
'Curdrice cricket'
Dennis no 'menace' in Madras
Inspiring a crop of chess champions
Changing times
Fly away with them...
Children's focus during Madras Week

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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