The Gentleman Tennis Legend from Tenkasi
Refused a Large Professional Contract at the peak of his career so he could continue to play at Wimbledon as well as in the Davis CupVijay Amritraj was truly inspired by the pronouncement made by his coach TA Rama Rao in the context of making a career choice - ‘There are many doctors, engineers and lawyers in India but (there is) only one Krishnan.’ This prompted the 9year old Don Bosco School boy to bunk class (he was severely punished the next day at school) and walk to the Egmore Stadium to watch Krishnan play in the Davis Cup match against Mexico in the first week of December 1962. It was the first time he had watched Krishnan play.
Tennis was a very expensive sport and Vijay’s parents did not have much money. However, this statement from Vijay’s coach was enough for his mother to get Vijay (a sickly child) to pursue tennis seriously. From that time, Vijay was always inspired to be out of the ordinary and to achieve something special in life.
That is the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan for you – an iconic personality, a true gentleman, both on and off the court and an inspiration for an entire generation of aspiring tennis players in India. He was India No. 1 for almost two decades, Asian Champion for five years and a National Champion 8years in a row. He still remains the only Indian to have reached the Semi Finals at Wimbledon twice. During the late 50s and early 60s, he beat most of the greats of world tennis including Rod Laver, Andres Gimeno, Neale Fraser, Chuck Mckinley, Sven Davison and Barry Mackay, all the time being a great ambassador of our country.
Early Tennis days in Tenkasi
It was rather a strenuous beginning for Krishnan at his home town in Tenkasi. The boy was all of eleven years and he had just come back after spending a few years in Delhi. There was no electricity in the town. Nor was there drinking water available at home. In 1948, there were only bullock carts and a few buses in Tenkasi, with just a couple of cars. He would ride 6kms every morning to the Courtallam Falls to bring water home and then leave for the District Board High School. This became almost a daily routine for the youngster.
Born in Bhoothapandy (his mother’s home town) near Nagercoil, Krishnan spent his first three years at Tenkasi before shifting base to Delhi on his father TK Ramanathan’s Govt posting there. Watching his father (Ramanathan was Delhi No. 1 and National No. 3) play led Krishnan to taking to Tennis very early on in his life while schooling at Madrasi High School in Delhi. As a young boy, Krishnan would play regularly at the Talkatora Club along with his father who also doubled up as his coach.
Back in Tenkasi after completing his stint in Delhi, Ramanathan took over and maintained the only tennis court in the district, at the Taluk Office, where the young Krishnan would practice hard every day. Krishnan’s father was a great coach and a hard task master, and believed in speed of improvement.
By the time he was 12, Krishnan had played tournaments at the Kovilpatti Union Club, the Gymkhana Club in Tuticorin and also in Virudhunagar. This was particularly noteworthy because in those days tennis was not meant for school boys. Krishnan was probably the first school boy in India to play in leading open tournaments.
School boy in a College Tourney!!!
In May 1950, two reasons led to Ramanathan moving to Madras. His daughter had completed her schooling and there was no college in Tenkasi. He saw some early signs of tennis talent in his son Krishnan and felt that Madras would help him develop his skills better given the increased number of opportunities available in the city.
(After many decades, Krishnan recently made a nostalgic trip to Tenkasi taking along with him his grand children to whom he relived his childhood days of playing under the Courtallam waterfalls)
September that year was time for the Stanley Cup Tennis Tourney at Loyola College. It was a tournament meant for College students. It was only a few months since Krishnan had shifted base to Madras. And this young 13year old boy was almost completely unknown to anyone in the city.
Ramanathan persisted relentlessly with the physical director and the principal of the college to give this young kid an entry. It did not seem to make sense to allow an unknown school boy from RKM (Main) into a tournament that was conducted exclusively for college students. But finally Ramanathan’s persistence prevailed and Krishnan was allowed an entry. It was expected that the young boy would be soundly beaten and that it would be ‘practice time’ for the seniors playing against this school kid.
To their shock and to the delight of the huge crowd, Krishnan beat them one after another including Seshadri and C Ramakrishnan of the Law College and won the tournament. Tennis fans in Madras welcomed new comers. And Krishnan became an instant hit and gained their immense support, one that stayed on throughout his 20year tennis career.
First Singles and Doubles Victory at the Mylapore Club
In the Prestigious Mylapore Club tournament, he won the Singles on the Eastern Court and then combined with his father to bag the doubles crown as well. As he now goes around the Mylapore Club, he is saddened to find that this favourite Eastern court where he first won the singles and doubles titles is no more part of the Club.
It was also at the Mylapore Club that Krishnan first met with TV Balagopal, a renowned tennis player of that generation. Watching Balagopal play inspired Krishnan and spurred him on to perform better.
He made his first overseas trip in 1952 when he made it to the Wimbledon Juniors. Two years later, he became the Junior Champion at Wimbledon beating Ashley Cooper in the final (the first Asian to do so) and also became the No.1 Junior player in the World.
By then, he had won the Men’s Nationals and had become the No.1 player in the country. He had had a rapid and an unprecedented jump to the senior grade. He had also represented India in the Davis Cup as a 16year old.
Davis Cup SF wins – Father and Son
The joke in the 60s was that Ramesh went from Cradle to the Tennis court. Grandpa Ramanathan coached Ramesh from the time he was just 5years. In 1981, Krishnan moved over to his current residence on Oliver Road where he also set up a grass court to coach his son Ramesh. He still proudly maintains the grass court!!!
Krishnan rates winning the crucial 5th rubber against Brazil in the Davis Cup SF in Calcutta in 1966 to take Indian into the Davis Cup Final as one of his best moments in his tennis career. He was warmly supported that day by many of the Mylapore Club members who came all way to Calcutta to watch that match.
Just over two decades later, Ramesh brought back pleasant memories for Krishnan when he beat Wally Masur (once again in the deciding 5th rubber) to take India into the finals of the Davis Cup (A fortnight before the match, Ramesh made a long trip from Mylapore to Vijay Amritraj’s house in Los Angeles and the two practised hard, day in day out, to try and get India victory against the seemingly invincible Aussies and it paid rich dividends).
Krishnan’s daughter Gowri was a national champion as well (his son in law TS Tirumurthy is a High Commissioner in Malaysia).
He was awarded the Padma Shri, Arjuna Award and Padma Bhushan as early as the 1960s – all by the time he had turned 30 such was his phenomenal contribution to Tennis.
He is particularly proud to have played in every nook and corner of India unmindful of the lack of proper facilities. In the 1960s, several thousands of tennis fans thronged the court at West Boulevard Road (near Main Guard Gate) in Trichy to watch him play an exhibition match against Neale Fraser. Krishnan counts the passionate support from fans across the country as one of his most memorable experiences of his life.
He had a Demi-God status where ever he went - be it in Madurai, Coimbatore, Cannanore or Ernakulam, the interior districts of AP or even the remote rural locations across North India. He was never fussy about ‘comforts’ even though he was a top ranked player, globally. To him, playing tennis came first. The venue or the facilities, off court, just did not matter to him.
Refused a big Professional Contract
Impressed with his top class performances through the 1950s, Jack Kramer came up to Krishnan in 1959 with a seemingly irresistible offer - a big professional contract that would have helped Krishnan make millions of dollars in a short period of time. The contract offer was kept alive for three years but Krishnan turned it down.
Krishnan considers this as one of the greatest decisions he took in his life, that of not succumbing to the ‘dollar pressure’ and living a simple and contended life. There is lot of money and glamour in the sport now. It wasn’t so then and the prize money in even the leading tournaments would not cover even the basic expense of Krishnan. Viewed against this back drop, the decision to reject that offer says it all about Krishnan. Playing at Wimbledon and for India in the Davis Cup meant everything for him.
As I prepare to leave his house that is full of Tennis photos, he jokes, reminding me of Vijay’s statement of Krishnan being incredibly funny ‘If I had accepted that global professional contract, you may not have been able to meet me today, for I would have been in a big bungalow in a high profile location in the US’!!!
(Since the early 1960s, Krishnan has been running the Indane Gas Agency (IOC) on ThiruvengadamStreet in Mandaveli )
Best Year : 1959 - RANKED World No.3
Best Period : 1959 – 65- RANKED in the Top 10 in the world
Best Match : Beating Roy Emerson in Straight Sets at Wimbledon, 1961
Record : Reaching SF at Wimbledon twice a feat unsurpassed by an Indian (Singles)
TS Santhanam’s intro at Wimbledon
Krishnan was playing at Wimbledon. He heard big and consistent cheer from the stands. At the end of the match, the man came up to the young Krishnan and introduced himself, words that Krishnan simply cannot forget almost 60years later ‘Sir, they call me TV Sundaram Iyengar’s son. I really enjoyed your game today. Congratulations on a great win.’ Later that year, Krishnan heard the same voice shouting for him at Forest Hills (in the US).
‘At that time, TS Santhanam was already a renowned personality in the corporate sector having achieved big successes in the auto space. It was the kind of introduction that was so typical of the man’ says Krishnan. ‘He was affectionate and unassuming. For him to walk up to me to introduce (himself) in the way he did and to wish me well was a humbling experience.’
‘I was so happy when I heard that the Mylapore Club, with support from the TVS Group companies, was conducting an annual tournament in his memory. It is befitting that there is a national tournament named after him for he was such a great patron of Tennis all his life.’
TK Ramanathan spotted the spark in N Srinivasan
Ramanathan started the first tennis coaching camp in Madras (in RA Puram) in the 1950s. N Srinivasan was part of that camp. He was a very young boy but Ramanathan immediately spotted the spark in him. He was giving it a good fight against boys much senior to him. NS was one of Ramanathan’s favourite boys. Well over 5decades later, Krishnan remembers those words of his father made at the tennis court then ‘Whatever this boy does in his life, he will not give up easily. Even when he is back to the wall, it is likely he will fight till the end.’ Krishnan can see that spark in NS even today as he fights off so many challenges in his career, both in the company that he runs as well as in cricket administration.
Krishnan’s Story Telling was ‘Incredibly Funny’ and ‘Extremely Clean’ - Vijay Amritraj
‘When we were growing up, we always felt that when Krishnan played in India, he could not lose. I was born in the year that Krishnan won his first nationals. Interestingly, 18years later, I beat him to bag the National Championship’
Vijay played under Krishnan’s captaincy for several years and then took over the captaincy of the Indian team from him and held the Chair till the end of his career. Ramesh played under Vijay’s Captaincy and Vijay’s son Prakash under Ramesh’s. ‘The two families remained ‘professionally’ connected for several decades and I was fortunate to have played with both – the father and the son.’
Vijay credits Krishnan for inspiring him in his long and fascinating tennis journey that gave him everything in life ‘When Krishnan was in the captain’s Chair, it gave me immense confidence. In between points, I would just glance at him and that was enough for me to be guided into what I should be doing next. Such a confidence is tough to instil but Krishnan was able to do that. Having spent all those years with Krishnan, I think I was able to instil the same confidence in Ramesh when I took over in the Captain’s chair.’
‘It is difficult to believe that Krishnan, who was a man of few words in public, was an absolutely different personality when he was 1-1 with us. His anecdotal way of explaining complex things and his storytelling ability was ‘incredibly funny’ and ‘extremely clean’, a unique combination which is very hard to do, really.’
‘In the early days, I enjoyed playing the Davis Cup because of his presence at the Chair. Both on and off the court, he brought out the true spirit of what India, and more particularly what Madras, stood for. He was a true ambassador for both the sport and the country, and a role model for every aspiring tennis player of my generation.’