`It was a rich man's game'

Ramanathan Krishnan on clubs, courts and tennis culture five decades ago

Most tennis courts in pre-Independent Madras were attached to clubs that were British preserves. These institutions were reluctant to extend membership to Indians. Those who managed to get in because of their exceptional talent were discriminated against. This was true not only of tennis. In fact, racism of the worst form was practiced at one prestigious cricket club, where Indians had to drink water from an earthen pot kept under a tree.

In those days, Indians packed clubs offering cricket facilities. The same enthusiasm was lacking for tennis. The reason was simple. To play tennis at the SIAA courts (behind Central Station), Madras United Club (Park Town), Telegraph Recreation Club (at Law College), YMCA Courts (at Law College and Kilpauk) or the Cosmopolitan Club, one had to pay a monthly fee, ranging from Rs. 5 to Rs. 10, a princely sum at that time. During the 1940s, a modest house could be rented for Rs. 3 a month; a tram ride around the city cost just three quarters of an anna.

Owning a tennis racquet was a mark of prosperity. Not many sports shops stocked racquets; those that did sold them at exorbitant prices. Tennis players used to flock `The Tennis', a shop near Elphinstone Theatre, because in comparison, its prices seemed reasonable. My first racquet came from this showroom, in 1949, for Rs. 12. The proprietor, Krishnaswami, had played tennis at the National level and was obviously hooked to the sport. The Tennis, the first and the last exclusive tennis showroom in Madras, did not last long after Krishnaswami's death, as his children did not share the same passion for the game.

In old Madras, there were not many tennis coaches. In fact, this was true of every other city in the country. The All India Lawn Tennis Association (AILTA) had a peripatetic coach, who went from city to city to train tennis players. When I was learning the ropes, Noor Mohammed was the coach. Mentoring by Noor supplemented the constant coaching provided by my father (T.K. Ramanathan), who played competitive tennis. Thanks to invitations from clubs, Noor was a frequent visitor to Madras. He pursued his mission of making tennis champions till he grew really old.

On clay courts, players from Madras had an edge over others. Clay courts in Madras were of much higher quality, often better than those abroad. As labour came cheap in Madras, these courts had the benefit of better preparation and constant maintenance. Topped with cow dung, they were hard and did not have false bounce, the bane of most clay courts elsewhere.

It was a pleasure to play on these courts. The Madras State Lawn Tennis Association frequently organised National and State-level tournaments at the Egmore Tennis Stadium, belonging to the Madras Corporation. The clubs organised State-level tournaments. The Stanley Cup, a college-level tennis tournament held in Loyola College, was very popular during my time. Triumphs in this tournament built young players' confidence. Until 1949, only college students could take part in this tournament. In 1950, I became the first schoolboy to enter the tournament and also win the Cup. Representing Ramakrishna Mission High School, I beat C. Ramakrishna, a Law College student.

Even in those days, Madras produced great players, such as S. Vishnu Mohan, M.V.G. Apparao, A. J. Udayakumar, P.S. Seshadhri, V. Ranganathan, Rabi Venkatesan and C. Ramakrishna, who could be compared to the best from any other part of the country. Used to practising on highbounce clay courts, Madras players were, however, slightly diffident on grass courts.

My victories at the junior and senior National Grass Court Championships in the early 1950s helped demolish the belief that Madras players were not cut out for grass court tennis.

RAMANATHAN KRISHNAN was born in 1937. He was among the world’s leading tennis players in the 1950s and 1960s. Krishnan was ranked among the top-10 amateur players in the world on five different occasions. In 1960, he was number three.


…how one Madras player landed up at Tiruchi for a tournament that was being held at Trichur. His ears failed him.


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