During the reign of British Raj many European sports and games were introduced in the Indian subcontinent. Football, Hockey, Cricket, Tennis etc. Were among them. These games, introduced by the colonial authorities, are generally considered as the elements of colonial modernity. Among these Tennis did not attain the popularity of Football, Hockey or Cricket. But still India had produced many legendary Tennis players. India also had many memorable victories in the world tennis arena. Among the great tennis players produced by our nation, the first and foremost is Ramanathan Krishan, the first Indian to enter the semi final of Wimbledon. Ramanathan Krishanan’s historic semifinal at Wimbledon(1960) turns sixty in 2020(Here onwards RK).
Ramanathan Krishnan was born on April 11,1937 at Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. He was well mentored by his father late T.K. Ramanathan and he took him to the game of Tennis. At a very young age RK showed his skill in Tennis and developed passion for the game. At a very young age RK conquered the tennis courts. R K’s moment of glory came in 1954 when he won the Boy’s Junior title at the Wimbledon ,at the age of 17.(This achievement was repeated by Ramanathan Krishnan’s son Ramesh Krishnan in 1979, when he won the Boy’s title at the Wimbledon) RK defeated Australian Tennis player Ashley Cooper in the finals. This was independent India’s first Tennis title at the international level. Since then there was no looking back for RK. He had gone from strength to strength.
1n 1955, at the age of 18 RK made his first appearance in the Senior Doubles championship at the Wimbledon. He paired with Naresh Kumar but eventually lost in the quarter finals to the Australian pair of Rex Heartwig and Lew Hoad. After this Ramanathan made three more appearance in the quarter finals of the Wimbledon, in 1959,1965 and 1968.In 1959 Ramanathan paired with Chilean Luis Alberto Ayala Salinas, in 1965 with Australian Robert Howe and in 1967 with fellow country man Jaidip Mukerjea.
In the 1959 Wimbledon, RK reached the quarterfinals but lost to Alex Olmedo in the quarterfinals. In the same year he defeated legendary Australian Tennis legend Rod Laver in the Davis Cup. This improved his ratings and RK was seventh seed at the 1960 Wimbledon. RK’s moment of glory came in 1960 when he reached the semifinals of the Wimbledon. He was the first Indian to reach the semi final of a grand slam tennis tournament and the first Indian to reach the semi final of Wimbledon.
Sixty years had gone since this historic event. But no Indian was able to reach the Men’s or Women’s singles semifinals of a grand slam tournament. Thus RK’s record remain intact. In 1960 he lost to Australian player Neale Fraser. RK repeated the feat in the next year also and reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1961.But he lost to Australian legend Rod Laver (He had won eleven grand slam titles including four Wimbledon titles).
Those who defeated RK at the various Wimbledon tournaments eventually became the champions. In 1959 Alex Olmedo, in 1960 and in 1961 Rod Laver. This shows that he was one of the brilliant player among his contemporaries. In the 1962 Wimbledon RK was seeded fourth, the highest seed for an Indian player in the singles event at a grand slam tennis tournament. But he was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to an injury.
RK also held Indian Tricolour high at the Davis Cup, the most important tournament between national teams in men’s tennis. During his time India reached the finals of Davis Cup six times, 1956 (lost to Australia 1-4), 1959 (lost to Australia 1-4), 1962 (lost to Mexico 0-5), 1963 (lost to America 0-5), 1966 (lost to Australia 1-4) and 1968 (lost to Australia 1-4). Thus during career India was one of the best Tennis team of the World and he was largely responsible for India’s success in Tennis at the International level.
The Nation honoured him with prestigious awards. RK was awarded Arjuna award in 1961, the Padma Shri in 1962 and the Padma Bhushan in 1967. RK has written, with his son Ramesh Krishnan and Nirmal Shekar, a book entitled A touch of tennis: The story of a tennis family. The book covering the achievements of three generations of tennis players, T.K.Ramanathan, Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan.
It is often said that in the 1950s and 1960s RK was the most renowned Indian figure abroad after Pandit Nehru. About his style of Tennis, Lance Tingay (1915 – 1990, British sports journalist, historian, and author of several tennis books) wrote “He was pure Oriental Charm”.
During the past six decades India had produced many Tennis legends, Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan, Anand Amritraj, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Sania Mirza etc. All of them have contributed immensely to Indian Tennis. But Ramanathan enjoys an unique place among them. RK is the brand Ambassador of Indian Tennis.
Writer is head of the department, History, Malabar Christian College, Calicut, Kerala.