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Ramanathan Krishnan - artist who made the 'ball talk'

The story of a Madras lad who rose to become a champion remains a fascinating chapter in the history of Indian tennis, writes A. Prasanna Kumar for South Asia Monitor.  
Feb 15, 2017
By Prof. A. Prasanna Kumar
It looks like a fairy tale -- especially these days when champions are constantly chased by media and hysterical fans and rewarded with huge amounts of prize money. What Rod Laver who won the golden grand slam twice received at Wimbledon in 1969 was peanuts (3,000 pounds) compared to the fabulous amount of 1.88 million pounds Novak Djokovic received in 2015. 
The story of a Madras lad who rode on a bicycle for his daily tennis practice and how he rose to become a champion who was honoured and 'served' by two Americans who later became Presidents, invited for breakfast by an Indian President and two Prime Ministers remains a fascinating chapter in the history of Indian tennis.
The racket was his brush. The tennis court was the canvas on which his artistic touch produced masterful strokes of his genius that delighted crowds wherever he performed. Ramanathan Krishnan's emergence six decades ago as the youngest national champion put India on the world tennis map. Dhyan Chand in hockey, C.K. Nayudu in cricket and Ramanathan Krishnan in tennis were trail blazers of Indian sport. 
Hailed as a 'chess player' on the tennis court, Krishnan was a touch-artist likened to Cochet of France. India's greatest-ever tennis star, ranked World No.3 -- in fact number two, as World No.2 Alex Olmedo, who lost twice to Krishnan that year, had by then turned a professional -- Krishnan had wins over all his great contemporaries.  
He was among the top five for several years and for 17 long years strode the Asian tennis horizon like a colossus. In 1967, even when he was past his best, The New York Times described Krishnan as among the 'five better players of the world' when he beat Clark Graebner of the US.
When the 16-year-old Madras lad beat Jack Arkinstall in the final of the national tennis championship in 1954 at Calcutta, without dropping a set, Krishnan became the youngest player to win the national title.  
The following year, he won the Junior Wimbledon title. The young Indian's rise to the top was rapid. At Wimbledon, he went on to demolish one great player after another such as Jaroslav Drobny, Herb Flam and Nicolo Pietrangeli.  
Krishnan, who became a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 1960 and 1961, turned down Jack Kramer's fabulous offer, a virtual 'goldmine', to join professional tennis. For him, playing for the country in Davis Cup and major tournaments was the greatest honour. Krishnan lost in the semifinals in both the years to the eventual champion -- Neale Fraser in 1960 and Rod Laver in 1961.  
In 1962, when Krishnan was at the peak of his career, an ankle injury came in the way of realising his dream of winning the Wimbledon title.  'That's fate, I guess,' he opined.
Wrote D.F. Byrne of Krishnan, who became the first Indian to enter the semifinals at the 1960 Wimbledon: "The Indian champion had delighted the Wimbledon crowds with exquisitely carved victories over (Andrés) Gimeno (of Spain) and (Chilean Luis Alberto) Ayala (Salinas) in two of the finest matches in the whole tournament ... two polished gems among a collection of rough-cut diamonds in Wimbledon's dazzling necklace ... skill rather than force and guile rather than speed being their outstanding features.  
"Krishnan played magnificent tennis in both, teasing his opponents into errors with sharply-angled returns and stop-volleys executed with artistic delicacy."
Krishnan became one of the most popular players at Wimbledon with his artistry and touch. He was accompanied by his wife Lalitha whom a newspaper described as 'the most charming honeymooner' at that year's Wimbledon. A month before the 1961 Wimbledon was born Ramesh and Krishnan celebrated it with brilliant wins to reach the semifinals again. When he beat Roy Emerson in straight sets in the quarter-final, praise was lavished on Krishnan's uncanny anticipation and superb courtcraft. 
Emerson, wrote a British newspaper, "could never have been made to look so inferior a player". The Australian champion, who later won the Wimbledon title, said Krishnan 'could make the ball talk'. It was eight-all in their sixteen encounters.  
Calcutta again proved lucky for Ramanathan Krishnan and Indian tennis. His racquet was hailed as the magic wand when he made history leading India to glory and for the first time into the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup on that memorable Tuesday in December 1966. 
That was the day when the packed stadium erupted in joy and the roar of the celebrations in Calcutta, with government offices closing down, echoed across the entire nation. For six hours, there was an unprecedented traffic jam on Howrah bridge. 
'Indian tennis comes of age' wrote former Indian Davis Cup captain Naresh Kumar. 'It was not I but India that won' said an ecstatic Krishnan after the historic win, as the whole nation celebrated the unparalleled feat of Ramanathan Krishnan who took India for the first time into Davis Cup Challenge Round.
Personally, I was touched by his kindness when he wrote a foreword to my small book on "Tennis Players of Andhra". In 1976, at Vizianagaram, he readily agreed to be interviewed for AIR in the afternoon before his semifinal match.  
Aware of his adherence to punctuality, I went to the commentary box five minutes before the appointed time and to my embarrassment I found him already seated there!  
Twenty-three years later at Chennai, when I requested him to come to the AIR box for an interview during the ATP Challenger tournament final, Krishnan readily obliged. 'Good exercise' laughingly he said after the steep climb to reach the commentary box at the SDAT Stadium at Chennai. He spoke with characteristic frankness and humility during the half-hour interview broadcast by AIR. 
Such was his modesty that he politely turned down Andhra University's invitation to receive an Honorary Doctorate degree at its convocation in 1993. "I am just a tennis player and I do not deserve such a high honour.  In fact, I have not accepted such honour from any university," he replied when efforts were made to persuade him.
Ramanathan Krishnan was a trend-setter in Indian tennis who inspired and guided his Davis Cup teammates like Premjit Lal, Jaideep Mukherjea, Akthar Ali, Misra brothers and later his successors the Amritraj brothers, his son Ramesh Krishnan and Leander Paes. 
Like father-like son. Ramesh imbibed his illustrious father's touch, style and humility. He won the Wimbledon and French open junior titles and reached the quarterfinals in three grand slams. Again like his father, he helped India reach the Davis Cup final in 1987 and they were the only father-and-son duo to play in Davis Cup final. 
Ramanathan Krishnan  may not have earned a hundredth of what our modern stars make today but the gentle colossus of Indian tennis was admired and honoured by Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers and celebrities for his achievements on the tennis court and the stature he earned for India.  
His sensational win over Jaroslav Drobny in 1956 made headlines in British newspapers. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, then in London, was so delighted that he invited Krishnan for breakfast and warmly congratulated him while Indira Gandhi made a dosai for him. 
A decade later, when Krishnan won the title in the River Oaks Tennis Tournament in the US, George Bush the elder hugged and honoured him while the younger George Bush was a ball-boy at the final. Both of them later became Presidents of the United States.  
Another 'presidential honour' Krishnan received was in 1966 when Dr S. Radhakrishnan invited him for breakfast after Krishnan's memorable Davis Cup triumph at Calcutta.  
Quietly live Ramanathan Krishnan, his wife Lalitha, with their worthy son Ramesh and his family in Chennai, the cradle of South Indian culture where simple living and high thinking is a habit of the heart and an art practised to perfection by the eminent and the earnest, including former Heads of State like C. Rajagopalachari and S. Radhakrishnan, and Queen of Music M.S. Subbulakshmi during yesteryears, and now, among other celebrities, former Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi. 
The soul of such cities and towns is neither corroded by passage of time nor corrupted by accumulation of wealth.  
(Prof A. Prasanna Kumar is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, Visakhapatnam. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to

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