Ramanathan Krishnan: The Tennis Saga

We have moved from the lush lawns of Wimbledon to Davis Cup. The usual candidates claimed the singles titles, with the doubles category seeing quite a few brilliant performances by Indians and a Swiss claiming to be a quarter Indian. Those who were hoping Lady Luck would favour some Asian genes were disappointed. As we recap the Wimbledon week and take a look at some fierce davis cup action, Sports Rediscovered profiles the first Asian who made the Wimbledon semifinals and has the best Davis Cup record in singles for India – Ramanathan Krishnan.


Ramanathan Krishnan In Action

Coming from a family that boasts of a tennis legacy stretching over three generations, it’s surprising to think we have added him to the list of sportspersons once adored, now forgotten.

His father, TK Ramanathan and son, Ramesh Krishnan, both were tennis maestroes.  In fact, the Ramanathan family, along with others like the Amritraj brothers, can share credit for putting India onto the International Tennis map.

Born in Chennai, Ramanathan Krishnan was handed the racquet at an early age by his father, a genius in his own respect. Mysore State champion in 1937 and Delhi state champion in 1938, TK Ramanathan was a self-taught man, who once stood third in the national rankings. Remember, this in the 1930s, and tennis was still a leasure sport for the priviliged.

Ramanathan Krishnan began his tennis lessons at the Talkatora club in Delhi. The club, however, holds more importance to the ace for the memories than for the classes. There, a 10-year-old Ramanathan Krishnan witnessed his father take down local favourite and member of the American Army in Delhi, A Leavens.

“As I stood in a corner watching the match in the searing summer heat, things seemed to go on expected lines as the American took the first two sets 6-4, 6-4,” says Krishnan in ‘A Touch of Tennis: The Story of a Tennis Family’ (2000), the autobiography he penned along with son Ramesh.

“Then came the remarkable turnaround as my father simply refused to go down. He battled back to take the third and fourth sets 6-4, 7-5 and finally outlasted the dazed American 6-2 in the fifth.”

Returning home on their bicycle, Ramanathan Krishnan removed his socks and shoes to reveal bloody blisters on his feet. The son was shocked and began to weep and it was the father who consoled him with the words: “Don’t cry. This is my biggest moment on a tennis court. This victory means so much to me and my career in the Government”

“It was on that day I realised that there was no pleasure without pain for a sportsman” says Krishnan.

Anecdotes are aplenty in the life of the 78 year-old. The most memorable one is perhaps his success at the Stanley Cup. At the Annual Bertram Memorial tournament conducted by the Loyola College, the eighth grader participated in the event meant for college students. The authorities bent the rules probably thinking the child stood no chance. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Ramanathan Krishnan beat the defending champions and took the cup, without losing a set. This was the first of many wins.

Heroic Wimbledon campaign for Ramanathan Krishnan:

In 1953, Krishnan debuted on the sacred grounds at Wimbledon. He went down fighting to local boy Billy Knight. The 16-year-old then went on to debut in the Davis Cup, though unsuccessfully. The Indian contingent faced a 0-5 whitewash at the hands of Belgium in the Inter-Zonal.

Unfazed by the defeat, Ramanathan Krishnan came back to the green grass of Wimbledon’s center court. The next year, the world bowed down to the first Asian to win the boy’s singles title. He beat Australian Ashley Cooper 6-2,7-5 in the finals (Cooper went on to win the men’s singles in 1958). Incidentally, the second Indian to achieve the feat is his son, Ramesh Krishnan.

Seeded seventh in the 1960 Wimbledon, Krishnan beat Chilean star Luis Ayala 7-5, 10-8, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. He lost in the semifinals, however, to eventual champion Neale Fraser 3-6, 2-6, 2-6.

The following year, he reached the semifinals, losing out to Australian champion Rob Laver 2-6, 6-8, 2-6, who then went on to win the cup.

JKL Combination:

Teamed with Premjit Lal and Jaideep Mukherjee, Krishnan hoisted India to podium finishes in the Davis Cup. In 1966, in the Eastern-Inter Zone, India defeated Iran (in the semis) and Sri Lanka (in the finals), by a margin of 5-0. The Inter-Zonal competition saw the biggest upset of the game coming at the hands of Ramanathan Krishnan. He came back from being two sets down, to stun Brazil’s Thomaz Koch in five sets (3-6, 6-4,10-12,7-5,6-2). In the Challenge Round, however, India lost to reigning champions Australia 4-1. The consolatory victory came for Krishnan and Mukherjee in the doubles against defending Wimbledon champions John Newcombe and John Roche.


Premjith Lal and Ramanathan Krishnan. Seen in background are Rdb Laver and Neale Fraser

With a 50-19,win loss record, Krishnan remains one of the most successful Indian in the Davis cup singles category.

Post retirement: still allied with Tennis courts

Though he retired from International tennis in 1968, Ramanathan Krishnan still contributed towards the betterment of the tennis scene in India. He took his son Ramesh Krishnan under his wing, and played a crucial part in his success. The father-son duo, later went on to set up the Krishnan Tennis Centre in Chennai.

Tennis in India is surely at a better place in terms of participation and support. We might not know who Ghaus Mohammad Khan is, but we sure do know who Leander Paes is. Ignorance of history is a venial, yet shameful sin. As news of Rohan Bopanna’s loss comes from across continents, Sports Rediscovered hopes we find another Ramanathan Krishnan in the new crop of racquet wielders.

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