For those fortunate to be at The Hyatt on Monday, the evening was wrapped in nostalgia’s gentle gauze.

As part of Madras Week celebrations, Ramanathan Krishnan, India’s finest tennis player ever, and among the best in the world in the 1950s and 60s, sat down to speak about his roots in the city.

In conversation with Nirmal Shekar, The Hindu’s sports editor, Krishnan began with his father T.K. Ramanathan, who, peeping through the slits of a homespun screen, first saw tennis played in the High Court premises. “He was a brilliant man and good that everything he attempted. He understood tennis very quickly,” Krishnan said. “He taught himself how to play and became the No. 3-ranked player in the country. That’s how it all started for my family.”

Krishnan first hit a tennis ball in Delhi, where his father worked, but it was in Madras that his game was shaped. “We came down south in 1948 because of the bloodshed that followed partition, and went to Tenkasi. We moved to Chennai in 1950 because my father thought that, geographically, it was better for tennis. But clubs those days didn’t allow boys under 18 to play.”

The Andhra Maha Sabha was an exception. But not for long. “It was adjacent to Ripon Buildings, and people there wouldn’t go back to work after lunch. They’d stand on the balcony and watch the game. I was the underdog and when I beat senior players, they would clap. The seniors felt humiliated and said, thereafter, no player under 18 would be allowed to play there.”

T.K. Ramanathan decided to build a court in his backyard so he could coach his son, and soon Krishnan was beating older players in tournaments. He made special mention of the players in Madras who helped him improve. “I always say I am a product of competition,” he said. “When I came, Seshadri was the best player here. Then there were Vishnu Mohan, Apparao and Udayakumar, who could be compared to the best from any part of the country. Losing to them and then learning to beat them made me a better player,” he said.

From Madras’ heat and its cowdung-topped clay courts to London’s wet summer and Wimbledon’s grass seems quite the journey, but Krishnan made it. For more than an hour on Monday, so did his audience.

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SportsMay 14, 2012

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