Tennis ace Ramesh Krishnan speaks about following his dream, the magic of yesteryear matches, and how the game is still the heart of his family

Ramesh Krishnan doesn't remember a time when he didn't play tennis. Literally.

“I've been around tennis courts with a racquet in hand for as long as I can remember,” he laughs. “There was a clay court in our garden, where my father learnt to play, and I'm sure I came out there as a toddler and hit some balls!”

It came from being part of a large tennis-loving family, he says, where there was almost always a tennis game on, and never a dearth of players.

“My grandfather T.K. Ramanathan was very keen on tennis and he made sure we all played,” Ramesh recalls. “Even back in the Sixties, the ladies in our family — my aunt and my mother — used to play, and there was always someone to play with. Our whole lives revolved around a tennis court.”

Of course, it went without saying that the toddler who played in the backyard would eventually follow in the footsteps of his father, tennis legend Ramanathan Krishnan.

Grandfather's dream

“It was my grandfather's dream, and I never really gave any other career a thought,” he says simply. “By the time I was in high school, I was representing India in the Davis Cup, so my education was geared towards that. I don't know what I would have ventured into if not tennis!”

And follow he did, chalking up a stellar career in juniors just like his father — he was ranked No. 1 in the world and won both the junior Wimbledon and French Open titles — and then building a solid career on the main tour (he was ranked as high as No. 23 in the world), featuring in some memorable matches at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and, of course, in the Davis Cup.

“The Davis Cup matches always stand out — we reached the final in 1987 and the semi-final in 1993. And, reaching the quarter-finals at the U.S. Open [1981 and 1987] and Wimbledon [1986] is something I look back fondly on,” he says. “Both the Davis Cup and Wimbledon always meant a little extra to me.”

In a career spanning three decades (1977 to 1993), he won a reputation not only for having a beautiful game, all amazing angles and volleys, but also for being a gentleman on and off the court.

“The bulk of players from India were well behaved — I think our society demands that,” he says, unassumingly. “You were expected to carry yourself a certain way in public.”

Time for family

When it came time to retire in 1993, Ramesh was quite content to hang up his racquet , professionally speaking. It gave him more time to focus on that other core passion of his life — family.

“My children had started school and they couldn't travel with me as much,” he says. “Suddenly I wasn't that excited anymore about boarding a plane and travelling leaving my family behind.”

Fittingly, his family remains tennis-crazy, with both his daughters, Gayatri and Nandita, playing tennis, first in juniors' tournaments, and now for their respective universities in the U.S.

Travelling with his daughters to juniors' tournaments as his parents did with him decades ago, Ramesh had come full circle — and discovered it wasn't easy. “There were times when Gayatri was playing and I knew her opponent was not being fair to her, but I had to detach myself — it's a whole new experience as a parent,” he says ruefully. “It's like being on the rollercoaster all over again… but, this time, I had no control over what was happening!”

Today, sitting in the garden that once housed the clay court he played on, Ramesh exudes calm contentment. His days are spent caring for the Krishnan Tennis Centre (“a place to come play tennis and get some exercise”), the Indane Gas supply service his father started in 1963 (“he played in the amateur era and needed a livelihood”) and his daughters (“helping them achieve what they want to.”)

He still plays tennis socially almost every day of the week, but says his role in the future of Indian tennis is just that of ‘cheerleader' — “I'm happy to root for people who're doing well,” he smiles.

Tennis has been his life and his education, and that, for Ramesh, is enough: “It gave me a chance to grow as a person. I've had all these amazing experiences, and I have tennis to thank for it,” he says.

SERVE AND VOLLEY

Pitted against the best: I consider Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras the most outstanding players I ever faced – Borg in the early part of my career in the 70s, and Sampras towards the end of my career in the 90s, just as he was starting out.

Toughest opponent: I always found Ivan Lendl very tough to play. His style of play just didn't suit me – I couldn't serve big enough to unsettle him and he was a bit too overpowering. He was a nightmare for many players to face, and I was one of them!

On gentlemanly conduct: I think it depends on your upbringing. John McEnroe was from New York and he had a little bit of New York in him. I think we in India certainly wouldn't have looked kindly upon that kind of behaviour!