PARTAB RAMCHAND | 10 JANUARY, 2018
A Feat That Remains Unchallenged After Almost 60 Years
Down Memory Lane
There is a certain aura about Wimbledon that gives it a special status among Grand Slam events. ``Wimbledon champion’’ means that the player has reached the pinnacle of his achievements and nothing can equal that feeling – unless of course he wins it again.
To us in India the performance of our players at Wimbledon is what counts in the ultimate analysis. However impressive their showing may be in the other Grand Slam tournaments it is not the same as doing well at the Mecca of tennis. Indian players themselves know only too well the importance of running up a commendable record at Wimbledon and the leading players have frequently reserved their best for this tournament.
Ghouse Mohammed was a pioneer of sorts when he made it to the quarterfinal of the singles event in 1939 before going down to the ultimate winner Bobby Riggs of the USA. But it was not until the arrival of Ramanathan Krishnan in the fifties that India had a serious contender for the title. The touch artist from Madras (as Chennai was known then) first served notice in 1954 when he became the first Indian to win the junior Wimbledon title.
Two years later he pulled off a major upset by defeating the fifth seeded Jaroslov Drobny in the first round of the men’s singles. Drobny had been the champion two years before. Then in 1959 Krishnan gave a good fight to top seed and ultimate champion Alex Olmedo of the USA before going down in the third round. .
By now Krishnan was one of the world’s leading players good enough to be offered a lucrative offer from Jack Kramer to join the professional ranks. But that meant saying goodbye to Wimbledon for in the pre-Open era professionals were not allowed to take part in ITF tournaments. The very idea was anathema to Krishnan and he did not take long in turning down the offer. In 1960 he became the first Indian player to be seeded at Wimbledon and as the seventh seed he took his appointed place in the quarterfinals. But he went one step further when he upset the No 4 seed Luis Ayala of Chile to make it to the penultimate round.
There was much joy among tennis fans back home for Krishnan was now two matches away from the title and they reckoned there was a realistic chance of him pulling it off.
Expectations were high but the hopes were dashed as Krishnan’s artistic but softer game was no match for the power packed play of the Australian Neale Fraser and the left hander who went on to win the title won in straight sets.
The following year Krishnan was again seeded seventh and again took his appointed place in the quarterfinals. He was now up against the fourth seeded Roy Emerson of Australia a formidable opponent. But to everyone’s surprise Krishnan won in straight sets.
Historian Duncan Macaulay wrote in glowing terms of Krishnan’s artistry. ``This was one of the best matches Krishnan ever played at Wimbledon. He turned Emerson’s speed to his own advantage and directed his shots with a magical caress to those parts of the court where Emerson wasn’t.’’ How very much in keeping with the Krishnan image! Again the hopes were raised back home that Krisnnan might just pull it off. And yet again he came a cropper in the semifinal going down to the ultimate champion Rod Laver of Australia.
In 1962 Krishnan at the peak of his powers was seeded as high as No 4 just behind the three Australians Laver, Emerson and Fraser. Unfortunately an ankle injury saw him default his third round match to John Fraser, brother of Neale early in the first set. It was Krishnan’s best chance at the title and it was sad it had a rather melancholic end.
The following year Krishnan was unseeded and lost to the top seeded Emerson in the fourth round. He was never thereafter a serious contender for the title but he remains the only Indian to make it to the semifinals of the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Vijay Amritraj made it to the quarterfinals in 1973 and 1981 and Krishnan’s son Ramesh also entered the last eight in 1986. But Krishnan’s feat remains unique among Indian players.
Of course Krishnan’s deeds in the Davis Cup are legendary the culmination of leading India into the Challenge Round in 1966. But India also entered the Davis Cup final in 1974 and 1987 whereas Krishnan’s record at Wimbledon is unchallenged. And it was not just the results but his game that attracted attention. His playing style was known as ``touch tennis.’’ Critics hailed Krishnan as a marvel. Lance Tingay of the Daily Telegraph described his tennis as ``pure oriental charm’’ while another described his style as ``Eastern magic’’. Noted writer Robert Philip wrote that ``each and every Krishnan rally was a thing of rare beauty.’’ Yes it was a joyous sight to see Krishnan at his peak.