As the non-playing captain of Indian men's tennis squad for Davis Cup, the legendary Shiv Prakash Misra has his task cut out. He talks about the challenges ahead, peppered with memories of his era of wooden racquets. Sangeetha Devi Dundoo listens in

His fitness levels and no-nonsense late afternoon sessions of tennis at the Secunderabad Club belie his age. At 68, Shiv Prakash Misra, fondly referred to as S.P saab, is a revered man. Tiny tots learning to hold the racquet and promising young players turn to the legendary Hyderabad tennis player for guidance.

When he took over as the (non-playing) captain of the Indian men's team from Leander Paes last year, he knew what was in store. “I've become more fitness conscious and have been playing with younger players. Since there's a lot of age difference between me and the younger players, it took me sometime to gain their confidence,” says the soft-spoken Misra, who is also a selection committee member.

His ancestral home, a stone's throw away from the busy Begumpet road, reveals tales from the past. Photographs of Misra with world-renowned tennis players shot decades ago (1950s to early 80s) adorn the walls.

There are trophies and trophies that adorn the living room. Misra tells us that he disposed more than a hundred trophies due to lack of space! But clearly, he doesn't want to rest on past glory. In September, he will be travelling with the Indian men's team watching their every move during the Davis Cup matches, followed by the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and the Asian Games in China.

Beware of Brazilians

His mind is buzzing with strategies and he has done his homework. He lets us in, “We've always banked on the doubles team and we still can. This time, we cannot afford to overlook the Brazilians. They have performed very well and they beat the Bryan (the American twins Bob and Mike) brothers in doubles early this year. Thomaz Bellucci is a player we need to watch out for. If Somdev Devvarman wins on day one, we'll have an advantage. And we can't rule out Rohan Bopanna.” Misra's confidence in the Indian team is evident when he asserts, “Our boys play to the best of their abilities when they play for the country.”

Broach the issue of players threatening to abstain from the Commonwealth Games if the AITA (All India Tennis Association) fails to clear their dues and Misra measures his words: “The players are demanding money that was due to them over the last two years. The system of payment for the Games is tedious involving paperwork. The dues should be cleared soon.”

Misra warms up with a smile while remembering his hey days when players travelled with nothing more than their wooden raquets, pocket money and clothes. “There was no prize money back then and there was more camaraderie among players. The game was much slower… we played serve and volley games.”

He has fond memories of playing practice matches with Arthur Ash and other tennis greats. “Practicing with international players helped remove the fear. We hardly got 100 pounds as pocket money for the Wimbledon schedule. Today, I think even the first round winner is paid around 15000 pounds.”

Personal trainer? Who's that?

Misra had the honour of being the first international-level player from Hyderabad. But he is quick to point out how he missed having a predecessor. “A little more guidance would have helped,” he says.

The concept of personal fitness training was alien to that era. “I used to run five miles, from my residence to the Begumpet airport and back, do some skipping and whatever else came to my mind. Afternoons involved tennis practice with my brother and sister and other players,” he says.

He, his brother Shiv Shankar Misra and sister Rekha learnt tennis from their father. A tennis court at home had helped them make an early start. “We'd return from school and become ball boys. We watched and learnt the game from my dad and his friends.”

He and his brother SS Misra won several men's doubles matches and he and sister won matches as a mixed doubles team at the national level.

S.P. Misra went on to play qualifiers and preliminary matches at Wimbledon and the US Open. “The first time I had to go to Wimbledon, I was the lone senior member with two juniors and a coach from Australia. My paperwork was not through and I was stranded in Delhi for 10 days since Jawaharlal Nehru expired and the country came to a standstill. I landed in Wimbledon only a day before the qualifiers with eight dollars to meet my expenses. There was no time for a practice match. And unlike today where players are selected on the basis of best of three sets, we had to play best of five without a break. I won the three qualifying rounds and the first preliminary round. In the second round, I played against Jaideep Mukherjee. We both won two sets each and I was leading 4-1 in the final set. During the break, I thought the opponent had given up. The lack of focus cost me dear. I lost give games and eventually the match. If I had won, my career would have been different. I still regret having lost that match,” he rues.

These days, he and his brother SS continue to play serious matches and the legacy lives on through the brothers' children and grandchildren. “My daughter and son both were good players who then shifted focus to study MBA. My nephew Akshat was a promising player who gave it up in his prime. He would have gone a long way had he continued playing,” he says.

At the movies

Beyond tennis, Hyderabadis know SP as the former president of Hyderabad Kennel Club. He also loved long drives. When he says long drives, he means business. He recalls vivid memories of driving with his wife from Hyderabad all the way to Kashmir, taking in the sights and sounds of all major tourist attractions along the way!

And how can we forget the family's passion towards cinema. His father started Kamal Talkies followed by Basant Talkies, Nataraj theatre, Sangeet and Anand. SP owned Anand until 2002 while his brother SS the famed Sangeet Cinema, which is on its way to become a multiplex.

SP's chapter in movies came to an end with Anand changing hands and tennis was back in focus.

His eyes brighten up talking of the forthcoming Davis Cup, Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games matches. “The boys stand a good chance to win a few golds and do the country proud,” he believes. Amen to that.

On and off the courts

# S.P. Misra was the first Hyderabadi to play competitive tennis in the international circuit.

# S.P. played in one of the longest games in the U.S. Open history when he beat Aguimo Ernest of Chile in the second round.

The match lasted five hours and the leather grips on the wooden racquet left him with blisters. “I lost the next match thanks to the painful blisters,” recalls Misra.

# S.P was the president of Hyderabad Kennel Club and used to go on cross-country long drives.