Some 30 years ago Ramanathan Krishnan told me in an interview that for the Indian tennis player two things are important, even sacred – Wimbledon and Davis Cup. The great Indian touch artist in fact refused an offer from Jack Kramer to turn professional at the peak of his game in the early sixties when it was clear that he could not play either Wimbledon or Davis Cup if he took it up.
Krishnan, now 75 was indeed a path breaker for he entered the semifinals of the Wimbledon singles event in 1960 and 1961. No Indian had made it as far as the penultimate round at tennis’ premier event and the feat remains unrivaled for an Indian player. Ghouse Mohammed had qualified for the quarterfinals way back in 1939.
But Krishnan by his exploits particularly at Wimbledon and the Davis Cup did the most to inspire a new generation of tennis players. Not surprisingly given the high regard that Indian players have for Wimbledon they have performed the best here in comparison to other Grand Slam events. For that matter India have not done too badly in the Davis Cup either reaching the finals three times in 1966, 1974 and 1987.
The Indian showing at Wimbledon has revolved around the three best singles players the country has produced - Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan. Vijay made it to the quarterfinals in 1973 and 1981 before losing five set encounters to Jan Kodes, the ultimate winner and Jimmy Connors. In keeping with the Indian players’ enduring image his behaviour was impeccable and his play was elegance personified.
He was hailed by the British press as "Ranji with a racket." For the Indian tennis player it was always artistry over power and in fact this had already been established with Krishnan’s sublime touch particularly in his victory over Roy Emerson in the quarterfinal in 1961.
One critic wrote "Surprisingly Krishnan beat Emerson in straight sets. This was one of the best matches Krishnan ever played at Wimbledon. He turned Emerson’s speed to his own advantage and directed his shots with a magical caress to those parts of the court where Emerson wasn’t."
Krishnan had first served notice in 1956 by shocking Jaroslav Drobny the champion in 1954 in the first round. He was the first Indian to be seeded at Wimbledon being seeded seventh in both 1960 and 1961. In 1962 he was seeded fourth behind the three great Australians Rod Laver, Emerson and Neale Fraser. Unfortunately an injured ankle saw Krishnan defaulting to John Fraser, brother of Neale in the third round.
Mention must also be made of the gallant Jaideep Mukherjea who made it to the last 16 in four Wimbledon tournaments in the sixties. But the one match involving an Indian that attracted considerable attention at tennis’s Mecca came about in 1969.
Rod Laver then at his peak and in the year that he achieved the second Grand Slam of his career met Premjit Lal in the second round and by midway through the third set everyone had flocked to the court as the upset of the decade seemed about to unfold. Lal, then the top Indian player lead 6-3, 6-4, 3-3.
But then Laver showed why he was one of the greatest players of all time in reeling off 15 successive games taking the last three sets 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 for the match. One more unforgettable match involving an Indian was in 1979 when Vijay led the then three time champion Bjorn Borg by two sets to one and 6-6 in the second round only to squander the advantage and go down in five sets.
Ramesh who had followed in his father’s footsteps in winning the junior Wimbledon title in 1979 exactly 25 years after his father had won it fittingly became the next Indian player to make it to the quarterfinals at the hallowed venue in 1986 before he lost to Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Zivojinovic in four sets. Ramesh also made it to the quarterfinals at the US Open in 1981 and 1987.
Yes it is 26 years now since an Indian made it to the last eight of the singles event at Wimbledon and a full quarter of a century since an Indian entered the singles quarterfinals of any Grand Slam event. For all their expertise in doubles neither Leander Paes nor Mahesh Bhupathi have a good record in singles.
Paes who won the junior Wimbledon title in 1990 has never gone beyond the second round at the senior event though he has won the doubles in 1999 with Bhupathi who has perhaps not even participated in the singles event. Over the last decade the slim Indian hopes in the singles event have centered around Sania Mirza who has been stopped in the second round in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009 and Somdev Devvarman who was eliminated at the same stage last year.
This year too the Indian interest will only be on the doubles events – men’s, women’s and mixed – as Wimbledon gets underway.