A sportsman nonpareil

Ramanathan Krishnan symbolised the essence of sportsmanship and elevated the game of tennis to the realm of romance. A chat with the maestro.

TIME WAS when tennis ace Ramanathan Krishnan was portrayed as the most well known Indian abroad after Jawaharlal Nehru. How, where and on what yardstick was this assessment arrived at is not easy to configure. Transparent in this observation, however, was the popularity rating of the individual, considered by every section as the acme of perfection, who symbolised the essence of sportsmanship and all that sport stands for.

Champion of the State, two weeks before turning 15, beating A. E. Owen 6-0, 6-4, 6-2 at the Cosmopolitan Club in 1951, Krishnan was more than a prodigy; a genius born to wield the racquet that mesmerised the opponent and elevated the game of tennis to the realm of romance. The Krishnan era is a script worth writing in gold. He should not be measured in terms of titles and trophies — he won many, no doubt — but for giving competitive tennis that enchanting dimension, that touch of aesthetics, which brought a lump to the throat of many. On court, Krishnan was pure music, a symphony in a melody of Arcadian variety and range, perfect, balanced, blending all the notes with deft touches and flourishes. Inimitable was his backhand, smooth, silky and flowing; impeccable were the drop and the lob, which he played as if they were a "proposition of Euclid,'' to borrow an expression from A. G. Gardiner (Alpha of the Plough).

Krishnan filled the senses of the connoisseur in his heyday. But many an admirer in the city is sad that the best of his tennis came outside this metropolis, either on the emerald green turf at the hallowed Wimbledon, or at the South Club in Calcutta or even Delhi, where he played a fantastic five set duel with the US champion, Chuck McKinley, in the Davis Cup. Or was it at Boston in the1958 Davis Cup tie against the legendary Aussie, Rod Laver, for whom "not all the abracadabra of Harry Hopman" as that noted journalist, K. Balaraman, wrote in a despatch to this newspaper, "could stop the demolition."

Critics were unanimous in their acclaim that Krishnan was world class. Edward G. Potter, an acknowledged chronicler, rated him as World's No. 3, when rankings were not officially accepted as they are now. Tennis writers marvelled at Krishnan's elegance of stroke execution and �lan, which they described as "eastern magic." Many, understandably perhaps, wonder why a player as versatile as Krishnan failed to win the title that matters the most in the career of a tennis player — the All-England Championships at Wimbledon. It is said that two of the greatest players, Ken Rosewall and `Pancho' Gonzalez, never won the Wimbledon. If a third name needs to be added, it is Krishnan.

A sportsman nonpareil

Had Krishnan been after money, he could have joined the professional circus in the late Fifties, the troupe that the high priest of world tennis, Jack Kramer, was organising with such stalwarts as Ken Rosewall, Tony Trabert, `Pancho' Segura and Alex Olmedo. But Krishnan preferred to remain within the ambit of amateurism, with goals clearly earmarked. Wimbledon was not destined to see a gifted player like Krishnan walk out from the Centre Court with the title, but in the era when tennis was pure romance, laced with artistry, adeptness and adroit placement of shots, he was one of the masters along with players like Ashley Cooper, Nick Pietrangeli, Neale Fraser, Luis Ayala and Manuelo Santana.

It is a thrilling experience to go down the labyrinth of memory with Krishnan, gifted with phenomenal grasp of facts and figures, events and dates when he recalled the ambience of the city tennis scene half a century ago. What he acknowledges unhesitatingly is the experience gained from watching the seniors in action. Even before passing SSLC, Krishnan was the Madras State Champion, having downed Bangalore's Owen. But playing against veterans like T. B. Balagopal, N. Krishnaswami, M. R. Narayanswami, Dr. S. Rajan, and not to miss his own father, T. K. Ramanathan, helped add polish and poise. "I observed some special qualities, which brought glimpses of their past for me to learn," Krishnan said. Even as a student of the Ramakrishna Mission High School, Krishnan won the Stanley Cup, from among the collegians.

As Krishnan went up the ladder, he scripted some remarkable victories, starting from the conquest of Vishnu Mohan, a champion in his own right for "versatility, aggression and serve" at the East Zone tournament at Patna in 1952. A unique fact is that Krishnan has not lost a match in the city to any local player from 1951, till he faded away from the scene.

Krishnan rates the one-set match against the Aussie star, Neale Fraser, in the All-India Hard Court Championship final at the Egmore Stadium in 1962 as one of the best ever played by him in the city. "I knew it would be a close match, and told the authorities to start the final at 2-30 p.m. since both of us were to catch the flight to Bijapur at 6 p.m." But the officials thought a 3 p.m. start would be sufficient for a three-set match. But it turned out to be such a classical contest that lasted around three hours with Krishnan finally winning the first set at 19-17, before both rushed to the airport.

A sportsman nonpareil

The list of best matches in Krishnan's catalogue also includes the epic fight with the debonair Mexican, Rafel Osuna, in that specially erected casuarina stadium on the Island grounds. The five-setter was memorable for every stroke exchanged. Krishnan also mentioned the 1954 five-setter against Jack Atkinstall as one of the finest ties he played in Chennai. Apart from playing Mexico, he had also figured in a Davis Cup match against Malaysia in 1957. Aficionados here also witnessed a classic trading of shots, that underlined the masterly touch of two artistes, between Krishnan and the Wimbledon champion, Manuelo Santana in the mid-sixties, though it was an exhibition tie.

Krishnan attributes his success mainly to the regular participation in local tournaments week after week, organised professionally by committed men in various city clubs such as the Mylapore Club, the SIAA, the T'Nagar Social Club, the MCC, Gymkhana, Cosmopolitan and the Suguna Vilasa Sabha. District centres in Coimbatore, Tiruchi and Madurai also contributed significantly to the growth of many a player. Krishnan's contemporaries C. Ramakrishna, A. J. Uday Kumar, Akbar Khaleeli, Dr. Srinivasan, and seniors like Vishnumohan kept the season lively for months on end. Krishnan used to play five events, the junior singles, doubles, men's singles, doubles and even mixed doubles.

An event etched on Krishnan's mind relates to the Centenary of the Madras University in 1957. It so happened that there was no trophy triumph for Madras in any discipline. The only chance lay in tennis. Rev. Fr. Murphy, University Senate member from Loyola College, and Dr. A. L. Mudaliar, Vice-Chancellor, instructed Krishnan to play in the semi-final and final in New Delhi. Krishnan was hesitant, as he was preparing for the final year examinations less than a month away.

Understanding Krishnan's predicament, Rev. Fr. Murphy said, "Don't worry, Madras University won't fail you," a sentiment even the Vice-Chancellor acknowledged. During the Centenary Celebrations, Krishnan was honoured with a special gold medal.

Now, after 65 summers, Krishnan looks fit enough for a set or two. What strikes you is his humility and warmth. Undoubtedly, he is a sportsman extraordinaire, a rare gift to the sports fraternity, nay, to humanity.


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