June 17, 2005

Indians have enjoyed great highs on Wimbledon grass

H Natarajan

June is here, can Wimbledon be far behind!” It’s that time of the year when it’s love-all at Wimbledon. It’s time for romance with tennis. The enchanting aura of the Big W is quite unique; not the French Open, not the Australian Open, not the US Open nor any other tennis tournament can match the glitz and the glamour of this British event. It’s on the green carpet of the Wimbledon that every tennis pro dreams of leaving his or her mark. The magic of Wimbledon is quite surreal.

This is the stage that motivated the likes of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Martina Navartilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf - and several others before and later - to script some of their greatest epics. This is where the high priests of fashion have made their style statements through the likes of Sabatinis, Williams’ sisters and Sharapovas. This is where dress designer Ted Tingling and the “Voice of Wimbledon”, commentator Dan Maskell found their calling cards raised to new levels.

Indian players have not quite enjoyed the kind of success on the hallowed turf of the All England Club as players from Australia and America have. And that’s because tennis in India, till not long back, has been an elitist and mainly a family-driven sport. As a result, the country has not produced too many high quality, international players. But despite the limitations, Indians have had their moments under the Wimbledon sun.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not Mahesh Bhupathi who is the first Indian to enter a Grand Slam mixed doubles final title – he, in fact, went on to win the title in 1997 partnering Japanese Rika Hiraki. That honour goes to Meerut-born Lewis Seymour Deane, a British civil servant. He teamed up with Briton WP Barron to finish runner-up in the 1923 Wimbledon mixed doubles final. Incidentally, Deane was a member of the Indian Davis Cup team that beat France 4-1 in the red clay of Racing Club of France, Paris, in 1921.

Ghaus Mohammed was the first Indian to enter the men's singles quarter-finals at Wimbledon where he lost to American Bobby Riggs – more famous for his “Battle of the Sexes” with Billie Jean King – in 1939.

It took another 11 years before an Indian was found good enough to be seeded in the men’s singles at Wimbledon - Dilip Bose, who was seeded No 15 in the 1950 Championship.

But the man who has created the biggest splash in the men’s singles at Wimbledon is the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan, one of the finest players of his era that had the likes of Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Roy Emerson. Krishnan became the first Indian to win a Wimbledon title when he beat Australian Ashley Cooper to annex the boys' singles title in 1954, after finishing runner-up the previous year. Interestingly, four years later, Cooper won the men’s singles at this very Grand Slam.

Five other Indians, besides Krishnan, reached the boys' singles final: Premjit Lall in 1958 (he lost to American Earl Bucholtz, who that year became the first to win the junior Grand Slam), Jaideep Mukherjea in 1960 and Ashok Amritraj in 1974, all of whom finished as runners-up. Ramesh Krishnan emulated his father by winning the boys’ title in 1979 and in 1990, Leander Paes became the third Indian to achieve that honour.

Unlike many of the boys who faded out after making the finals of the junior Wimbledon, Krishnan grew in stature. He reached the men’s singles semis in 1960 and 1961, losing on both occasions to the eventual champions – Australians Neale Fraser and Rod Laver respectively. In 1962, Krish was seeded 4th – the highest seeding an Indian has ever got in the men's singles at Wimbledon. However, he had to retire during his third round match due to an ankle injury.

One surprise that nobody in the world of tennis expected came in 1969 – a year in which Laver won the Grand Slam for an unprecedented second time. That year at Wimbledon an Indian almost prevented Laver from achieving the honour. The Indian was up two sets to love before losing the second round to the all-time great Australian 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0. That Indian was none other than Davis Cup hero of yesteryear – Premjit Lall.

Four years later, Lall made another Wimbledon hero struggle for survival when he made Bjorn Borg fight a record 38 points in a grueling third set tie-breaker. Borg finally won his second round singles with a 6-3, 6-4, 9-8 scoreline.

India’s biggest hope after the exit of Ramanathan Krishanan was another lad from Chennai – Vijay Amritraj. The tall (six feet, three inches) and athletic Vijay was hailed as one of the most promising on the international circuit. Pundits ranked him alongside (Bjorn) and (Jimmy) Connors and called the trio as the ABC of tennis. But Vijay never quite enjoyed the consistency of Borg and Connors, though he beat just about every big player of his times. Vijay’s singles is more remembered for some of the classic matches he lost. One such came at Wimbledon in 1973, where he lost a very close in a well-documented men's singles quarter-final match to Jan Kodes - the eventual champion. Kodes was two points away from losing, serving down at 4-5 and 0-30.

Vijay reached the quarter-final round yet again in 1981. Here, too, he faced a big disappointment, losing to Connors in five sets after winning the first two sets. Incidentally, one of Vijay's victims on way to the last eight was Jan Kodes, whom he beat in the first round.

Vijay and his brother were one of the top doubles team in the world of their times, but they could not win the men’s doubles at Wimbledon. They achieved some consolation when they teamed up to win the over-35 in 1989.

Vijay, who commands enormous respect in the tennis fraternity, was given honorary membership to the All England Club – an honour that’s accorded only to men’s and women’s singles winners – in 2001.

The tempestuous team of Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi has given India some of the greatest moments in tennis – in doubles, together and with different partners, as well as in the mixed event. In 1999, the Paes-Bhupathi combine created history by becoming the first Indian pair to win a major title at the Wimbledon, when they beat Dutchman Paul Haarhuis and American Jared Palmer 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 in the men’s doubles. Paes won the mixed doubles title as well in the same year and championship with American Lisa Raymond. Paes won the mixed doubles title again in 2003, this time with Martina Navratilova.

Bhupathi has lost three Wimbledon finals - in 1998 the mixed double with Mirjana Lucic, in 2003 the men’s doubles with Max Mirnyi and in 1992 the boys’ doubles with Nitin Kirtane. However, he has won one Wimbledon title - the Wimbledon mixed with Russian Likovteva in 2002.

Paes, who was the losing mixed doubles finalist with Navratilova this year at the French Open, has been rendered hors de combat and is out of 2005 Wimbledon. That leaves Bhupathi and Sania Mirza as the standard bearers.

Sania has made rapid strides since winning the 2003 girls’ doubles title with Russian Alisa Kleybanova. For sure there will be great interest in her progress, though the focus of the omnipresent cameras may be more on her as a rival for Sharapova in the glam stakes.

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