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Chennai's Mr.Tennis

He made youngsters not just love the game, but live it. A tribute to legendary coach Robin Manfred

TENNIS WILL never be the same again now that Robin Manfred has hit his last ball.

To most people, the name will probably not mean anything. For a whole generation of young tennis players, Manfred was Mr. Tennis, Sir! Manfred meant summer, sweating it out on the playing fields of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association courts, at Egmore, learning to hit the ball faster, better and more elegantly than even he could expect. Or to spend the rest of the morning running around the stadium as a punishment till their legs finally trembled under them.

"This is not a game!" he thundered, in his heavily accented South Indian accent. "If you want to play a game go and play marbles with the urchins outside. Go! Get out of my sight! Do you know what I'm trying to teach you here?"

The entire contingent of fresh young recruits would stop playing. The mothers who sat by the side of the courts would rear up in distress to watch their podgy tennis prodigies wilt under the attack.

"This is tennis! This is not a game! It is the most important thing you will learn in your life, now go out there and start playing."

Robin Manfred himself would be dressed in dazzling whites. His shorts were crisped to knife edge perfection, his shirt white enough to impress Lalitaji, the television whiteness queen of those days, his socks and shoes would be like spurs, the hair brilliantined into black crests. The most frightening thing about him would be his occasional smile, glittering just when he seemed to be about to make a flattering remark.

"Why have you come here dragging your bottom across my courts, my boy?" he would ask, particularly if the victim was fat and plump and obviously being watched by his devoted mother. "Does you mother feed you bondas and biriyani every afternoon? Have you come to warm my benches?"

If the hapless victim nodded his head, thinking that Manfred was trying to be friendly he would be immediately asked to sit out on the benches by the side and watch the others play.

Or the Manfred mode of showing concern would be manifested by a close look at the racquet that a boy or girl had brought. "Why have you brought this thing? Is it to strain rice for your mother to make congee? I don't want any kitchen helpers here. Go out there and run ten times around the stadium." He was particularly strict if young players arrived with very expensive foreign rackets. To those, who could not afford a racket he would just as equally be kind and provide them with the right tennis equipment, but no matter what their problems, on court they had to be as perfectly dressed as he would expect a future champion.

What few of us knew was how difficult it was for him to maintain those standards. There were no lights on the courts, so as the days became shorter, the practice sessions were conducted in semi-darkness, but he made sure that each student had the promised number of balls; there were no changing rooms for the girls who had to change behind the bushes around the courts, each ball had to be meticulously accounted for, the ball-boys were often notoriously absent, but he gave the impression that he was training each promising young player to be a champion. He did not accept anything less. The fees were minimal.

Many youngsters did not last out for more than a week, but those that did were his devoted students for life. He was not teaching a game but building character. His way of showing his approval was to ask a promising player to take his place during the warm up sessions that involved jogging in place, push-ups and stretching exercises. Or he would take the whole class to watch a world class player on the courts in the stadium next door, play a game of tennis. "I'll never forget the time we watched Rod Laver play against the Amritraj Brothers with Robin!" exclaims a student. "It was like being invited into tennis heaven."

"He made us not just love tennis, but live it. It was not a game for Robin. It was life itself and for those moments that he spent with us he showed us how tough it could be and how hard we had to work just to get the ball across the net. It was a great leveller. You stopped being yourself and just became the champ that Robin wanted you to be. When we succeeded, he never said a word, but he had such an expressive face that you just knew, we were up there with the champs. For Robin, the world was a tennis ball and thanks to him, we knew that whatever we did in our life, our aim was to hit the ball. Higher. Better. Faster. Smash Manfred. Show him that we had the will to win!"


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