Lakshmi Mahadevan on a time when women played tennis in saris for a princely Rs. 30 for a title victory.
Those coached by T.K. Ramanathan commanded respect. The flood-lit tennis court at his house in Mandaveli (where his grandson Ramesh Krishnan now lives) was one of its kind. His exacting training methods drew even greater admiration. He conducted practice sessions in the morning and evening, all days of the week. Before we launched into the sets, each player was subjected to 15 minutes of heart-stopping, rapid volleying by TKR.
Every Sunday, the trainees were treated to a delicious meal from Ratna Café or Rayar's Mess. The coaching fee was Rs. 500 a month — big money in the late 1950s. But it was worth the amount. TKR was not a run-of-the-mill coach; nor a clock-watcher. He checked up on his tennis players long after they had vacated his court. As a routine, TKR called up his trainees and ordered them to an early bed if they had a match the next day. He had mastered the art of making champions.
In 1964, TKR's son Ramanathan Krishnan and I made Madras and our coach proud by winning the men's and women's titles of the Asian Championships. In that year, both of us topped the rankings. Now, I remember how close I was to missing the coveted Asian title. With great hesitation, my mother had allowed me to travel to Calcutta for that tournament.
Due to lack of encouragement, women made up a pathetically small percentage of tennis players in Madras. A majority of them was content with club-level tennis. Cut-throat competition was non-existent. These ladies looked upon tournaments as a social occasion. Most brought their husbands and children along. For some time, Indira Sambasivam and I were the only unmarried women playing competitive tennis. The dresses the ladies wore to the courts underlined how ambitious they were. Indira played, draped in a sari. Even while competing at the top level, I was dressed in a salwar kameez. My attire drew derisive comments from a national magazine.
As women players were few, most collegiate tournaments were exclusively for men. Even in co-educational colleges, men hogged the courts. When I studied Political Science at Presidency College, I noticed only Susheela Paul, daughter of the college principal, making use of the court. However, colleges in Madras seemed slightly better than those around the Presidency when it came to women's tennis. A varsity tennis tournament at Annamalai attracted only two women's teams and it was a walk in the park for the Madras University team comprising Usha Narasimhan, Malathi Rajarathinam and me. It was easier to find women players at social clubs, which went all out to promote tennis.
There were four tennis courts at what is now the car-parking area of the Madras Cricket Club. The tennis tournaments, covering South India, that were hosted by MCC and Madras Gymkhana Club were a big draw. Inter-club rivalry was intense such as the one between the Morning Club, a group that played early-morning tennis at MCC, and Gymkhana. Mixed doubles were the charm of these clashes. Not just at the club level, even national ranking tournaments attached great importance to mixed doubles. In sharp contrast, mixed doubles is rarely seen these days.
Apart from clubs, women also played tennis at private courts. T.S. Santhanam of the TVS Group had a private court which he graciously let me practise in. Markers working at clubs had such an incisive knowledge of the game that they doubled as coaches at private courts. Parry John from Gymkhana and Venkatesan from MCC, both markers, had ignited a passion for tennis in many young hearts. Without a deep love for the game, you could not continue as a player in those days. After a title victory, a winner got a princely sum of Rs. 30! More often than not, it was a gift voucher that had to be redeemed at a sports shop.
The players nominated by the Madras Tennis Association received a batta while having to travel when competing in national tournaments. But it was an unenviable sum. Considering the astronomical amount of money the Association (now, Tamil Nadu Tennis Association) lavishes on its players, it was clearly a very different world we lived in.