An unsung hero who coached two legends

T. K. Ramanathan's greatest contribution to Indian tennis was that he was a coach and mentor to his son and grandson. The proud family lineage stretched to over more than half a century of domination in the sport.

GULU EZEKIEL

A file photo of T. K. Ramanathan with his son Ramanathan Krishnan.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

INDIAN sport is full of unknown heroes, those who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, gaining little fame and even less wealth. But some of these pioneers played a vital role in the early, formative years of sport in the country, then dominated by the British.

One of those unsung heroes goes by the name of T. K. Ramanathan, a name few if any of today's tennis fans will be aware of. But Ramanathan was a pioneer, a visionary and the coach of two of India's tennis legends, his son Ramanathan Krishnan and grandson Ramesh.

Ramanathan was born in Tenkasi (Tamil Nadu) in 1910 and took up tennis only in his 20s, becoming the number one player in Delhi in the 40s. But it was not as a player, rather as coach and mentor to son and grandson that he made the greatest contribution to Indian tennis.

Having moved to Madras at the age of 18 in search of employment, it was here two years later that he had his first glimpse of tennis, putting him on a path that would establish a family lineage stretching over more than half a century.

Ramanathan paid a visit to the Madras United Club in 1930 where he watched state number one Balagopal in action. "I saw this puny man," Ramanathan would reminisce later, "and thought to myself, if he can play well, so can I."

Of course for a young middle-class Indian to play tennis — that classic English gentleman's club game — was easier said than done in the India of the 1930s. Apart from the discrimination prevalent, there was also the harsh economic reality. Ramanathan was forced to sell a piece of his wife's wedding jewellery to buy a tennis racket for a princely sum of Rs. 34!

He first played competitive tennis at the Telegraph Recreation Club in Madras. But it was a struggle to gain membership as `natives' were banned from the club. He managed to be accepted only after some high-level recommendations. Even then he was only allowed to play on the second courts which were meant for inferior players. That myth of inferiority was finally shattered in 1935 when he beat all the top players to win the club championships.

Ramanathan Krishnan was born in 1937 and a few years later the family moved to Delhi. This is where Ramanathan's reputation as a player grew and where Krishnan got his first tennis lessons. That first lesson incidentally was at the Talkatora Club in 1947.

Ramanathan won the Mysore State championships in 1937 and the Delhi state title a year later. He rose to number three in the national rankings and had his moment of glory when he reached the final of the 1939 All India Hard Court championships, losing to Ghouse Mohammad, one of India's earliest tennis legends.

Soon after he was invited to play at Wimbledon and was set to travel to England in 1939 when World War II broke out. Thus was lost what would have been a unique record of three generations playing at the All England Club.

It was after his triumph at the Delhi state championships that he got a call from the ADC of Viceroy Lord Linlithgow. Ramanathan had vivid memories of the many games he played with the Viceroy on his private courts.

Son Krishnan recalls the final of the Talkatora Club tournament where his father was the defending champion. Ranked number one in Delhi, Ramanathan came up against a steady baseliner by the name of A. Leavens, a member of the American army stationed in Delhi and the favourite to win.

"As I stood in a corner watching the match in the searing summer heat, things seemed to go on expected lines as the American took the first two sets 6-4, 6-4," recalled Krishnan in the book — A Touch of Tennis: The Story of a Tennis Family.

"Then came the remarkable turnaround as my father simply refused to go down. He battled back to take the third and fourth sets 6-4, 7-5 and finally outlasted the dazed American 6-2 in the fifth."

Returning home on their bicycle, Ramanathan removed his socks and shoes to reveal bloody blisters on his feet. The son was shocked and began to weep and it was the father who consoled him with the words: "Don't cry. This is my biggest moment on a tennis court. This victory means so much to me and my career in the Government" (He was employed in the Ministry of Civil Supplies).

The match also made a lasting impression on the psyche of the young Krishnan and taught him to never give up, never mind the match situation. "It was on that day that I realised there was no pleasure without pain for a sportsman."

Independence, Partition and the riots that followed saw the family return to Ramanathan's birthplace. And this is where Ramanathan's career began to take a back seat to that of his son.

Such was his determination to see his 10-year-old take up tennis in a serious manner that Ramanathan's first priority in Tenkasi was to find him a court where he could practice — even before looking for a suitable school!

It was in this sleepy village, about 400 miles from Madras that the young Krishnan took his first steps in competitive tennis. And he also began to receive intensive coaching from his father. "From my early days in the game, my father always emphasised the importance of consistency in ball play. He said keeping the ball deep and in play was more important than raw power and he also forced me to stay on court for hours on end to help strengthen my legs. Now, when I look back, I can say without doubt that I won most of my tough matches because of my strong legs," recounted Krishnan in the book.

Ramanathan's unshakable belief in his son's ability was behind their move to Madras in 1950. The teenager played for seemingly endless hours on the courts of the T. Nagar Ladies Club where women played in the morning and men in the evening.

Krishnan made his first breakthrough when he won the Stanley Cup at the annual Bertram memorial tournaments conducted by Loyola College. It was only open to college students but the authorities made an exception for the 13-year-old schoolboy, no doubt thinking he would not last beyond the first round.

Instead Krishnan beat C. Ramakrishna 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in the final and three months later claimed his first major title, the national junior championships in Calcutta.

After that there was no stopping him and for the next two decades Krishnan made a name for himself worldwide, rising to world number three. But that is a different story.

"The careers of my son and grandson were not accidental," Ramanathan told this writer just a few years before he passed away. "I could spot their early potential. Their success was the result of hard work and natural talent."

Ramanathan died in Chennai a month before his 80th birthday. Perhaps it is still not too late to recognise his immense contribution. A posthumous Dronacharya Award would surely be in order.