An extraordinary team

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

A Touch of Tennis: The Story of a Tennis Family by Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan, with Nirmal Shekar; Penguin Books, 1999; pages 173, Rs.250.

THIS is the story of a tennis family - Ramanathan Krishnan and his son Ramesh Krishnan - written in collaboration with Nirmal Shekar, Tennis Correspondent, The Hindu.

I have seen first class tennis since my Oxford days over six decades ago. The first Wimbledon final I saw was in 1936 when Fred Perry completed his hat-trick and turned professional. I have watched every U.S. Open since my United Nations days in New York from 1960, and reviewed many of them for The Sportstar and for Frontline. During all these years I have seen some sisters playing competitive tennis, for example, the Maleeva sisters and, more recently, the potential world-beaters from the U.S., Venus and Serena Williams. I have also seen John McEnroe and brother Patrick McEnroe, the latter becoming a fine doubles player. But I have not come across a father-son combination such as Krishnan and Ramesh, both of whom won a critical fifth rubber to take India into a Davis Cup final. That unusual record belongs to us.

The Krishnan saga begins with his father T.K. Ramanathan who came from humble beginnings to become No.3 in India in the early 1930s. I saw him win a match in the City Club, Tiruchi, in 1932. He was a baseliner, with fine speed of foot, amazing stamina and rock-like steadiness. But while his game was effective, it was not attractive to watch.

One must read the book and marvel at the sacrifices TKR made, and the total dedication he showed, to make his son Krishnan, born in 1937, develop into a top tennis player. Thanks to his father's coaching, Krishnan became a junior champion, and went on to become India's top player of his era. At one time he was ranked No.3 in the world. Playing for India in the Davis Cup, he played a total of 97 matches, and won 69 of them. His record in singles includes victories against Jaroslav Drobny, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson. He regards as his finest match the Davis Cup match in 1966 when he beat Thomas Koch of Brazil in five sets after being two sets down. He took India to the Davis Cup final once. But he was never destined to bring home the Davis Cup.

How did he do this? It was by sheer artistry. His service was never a powerful weapon. "You can be sure I won't serve any aces. Nor will I serve double faults. I am just going to put in my 'Ye Bhagwan' serve." He had no lethal ground strokes either. He won by consistency and placing with fine stop and angled volleys, and a graceful half volley drop shot now and again. His tennis was "a thing of beauty" to watch.

As I commented in a letter to the editor in The Hindu recently, his court manners were impeccable. He was a sportsman through and through. His modesty became him well. I regard him as a perfect role model for all aspiring youngsters.

On pages 86 to 90, Krishnan has given a personal list of the top ten players among his contemporaries. The remarkable thing about this list is that six of them, led by Rod Laver, the greatest of them all, are Aussies. Thanks are due, no doubt, to Harry Hopman.

THE story now goes on to son Ramesh, as much an artist with the racquet as his father. I have seen many of Ramesh's victories, including his victory on the Centre Court at Wimbledon against the Swedish ace, Joakim Nystrom, and practically all his matches at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York. He developed a remarkable mid-court game, playing his best shots and bewildering his opponents from the so-called "no man's land". He too began his tennis tutelage under grandpa TKR, but did not take too kindly to TKR's over-strict and somewhat dictatorial ways. He too represented his country with distinction in Davis Cup competition, first under his father Krishnan's captaincy, and later under Vijay Amritraj.

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On pages 168 to 173, Ramesh lists his top ten contemporaries. What a change from father Krishnan's list! There are six Americans, three Swedes and one German, nary an Aussie.

LIKE the Krishnans, father and son, Vijay Amritraj was also a fine sportsman, with perfect court manners. These three were our true tennis ambassadors - models of deportment, courtesy and modesty. I have never once seen any of them use "body language", which our young players have now started using, aping some American players.

Ramesh retired officially in 1993. Both father and son now devote their talents and energies to the coaching of young tennis hopefuls at the Krishnan Tennis Centre in Chennai. I wish them the best of luck and hope that in my life-time India will produce a world No. 1.

The book owes much to the cooperation extended by our top tennis reporter, and a fine writer too, Nirmal Shekar.

I am finishing this review just before leaving India later today, April 11. It is Krishnan's birthday. I called him this morning to wish him all the best, not just at the personal level, but as our Harry Hopman of the next millennium. "Ye Bhagwan": God bless!

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