Tennis as sweetness

A NATIONAL CHAMPION at 15 and a Davis Cupper at 16, Krishnan was a prodigy. He faced no opposition in domestic tournaments. And by 19 he was acknowledged as a world class player.-

Wimbledon remembers two gifted men, Rosewall and Pancho Gonzalez, who were not destined to be champions. RAMANATHAN KRISHNAN may well be reckoned as the third, writes S. THYAGARAJAN

He was the best-known Indian face abroad after Jawaharlal Nehru. He gave Asia a tennis identity, capturing the junior Wimbledon title in 1954. He spurned a Jack Kramer offer of $ 150,000 in 1960 and remained an amateur. Ed Potter, the famous tennis historian, ranked him No. 3 in the world. He has the unique honour of having breakfast with Prime Minister Nehru in London. If you are still guessing the identity of this person, you are not a tennis buff. You are not even fit to be a sports enthusiast. He is an exemplary sportsman, the man instrumental in fashioning our national sporting ethos, Ramanathan Krishnan.

Between 1953, when he made his debut in the Davis Cup at the age of 16 against Belgium in Perth, till his last bow against Thailand in 1975, the Krishnan saga symbolised a glittering phase. Krishnan's tennis was symphony at its best — in its range and dimension it was a fusion of the methodical and the mellifluous, the right mix of classicism and aestheticism. His approach, style and charm elevated competition to a plane of aesthetic delight. Critics hailed him as a marvel. Lance Tingey of The Telegraph portrayed his tennis as "pure oriental charm." Another writer described it as "Eastern magic." At Wimbledon, where he beat Ashley Cooper to become the first Asian to win the junior title, he enchanted connoisseurs with his impeccable silken smooth strokeplay. He never pulverised opponents; he sent them slumbering down the abyss of defeat. Wimbledon fondly remembers two gifted men, Ken Rosewall and `Pancho' Gonzalez, who were not destined to be men's champions at the Centre Court. Krishnan may well be reckoned as the third. Twice, in 1960 and '61, he was on the threshold; capitulating to Neale Fraser after conquering Roy Emerson first, and, then, as the fourth seed the following year, stopped by the legendary Rodney Laver.

Krishnan also finds his place in tennis lore as a prodigy — he was National champion at 15 and Davis Cupper at 16. Krishnan faced no opposition in domestic tournaments. Veteran writer K. Balaraman of The Hindu, who witnessed Krishnan mesmerising the young Rod Laver in the Davis Cup in Boston in 1959, wrote: "Krishnan was a big frog in a small well." Krishnan was acknowledged world class at 19 when he subdued Jaroslav Drobny in 1956. This victory prompted the then Prime Minister, Nehru, who was in London, to invite Krishnan for breakfast.

"When I returned to the hotel, I saw a telegram inviting me to join Pandit Nehru for breakfast," reminisced Krishnan. "I was thrilled and nervous. Although the time marked for breakfast was 9 a.m. I put on my best suit and reached the venue an hour earlier. Seeing me lurking near the diplomatic area, a security guard began questioning my presence. He was convinced when I showed him my telegram. At 8.55 a.m., I made a dash so that I could reach on time. You know who opened the door — Nehru himself."

Evaluating Krishnan through statistics is meaningless. He won as many as 69 out of the 97 Davis Cup rubbers he played and this underscores his class and calibre. Krishnan was an acme of perfection, a peerless symbol of a sportsman exuding simplicity that contrasted beautifully with the majesty of his play. His charisma had no trace of artificiality; it was inherent and inculcated by parental discipline.

Exotic moments were plenty in his career. The often recalled one is the extraordinary comeback win after trailing 2-5 and 15-30 in the fourth set against Thomas Koch of Brazil in the Inter-Zone Davis Cup final in 1966 in Calcutta. The outcome put India in the Challenge Round in Melbourne. Krishnan rates his 19-17 win in the one-set verdict against Neale Fraser at Chennai's Egmore Stadium in 1962 as one of his best matches. The sequence of wins over Rafael Osuna, Roy Emerson and Cliff Richey for the title at River Oaks in 1965 also ranks highly.

V. GANESAN

The Arjuna Award in 1961, Padma Shri in 1962 and Padma Bhushan in 1967 are fitting recognitions given by the Government. Krishnan disliked using his iconic status for recognition. He was affable, easily approachable and viewed his celebrity status as a divine gift. "My middle class upbringing and guidance to life's values emphasised by my father, T. K. Ramanathan, helped me a lot. I enjoyed my tennis wherever I played, even in centres like Kovilpatti and Vizianagaram. My father once said that we are from an agricultural family and that we can stay under a tree and still play tennis," said Krishnan.

As an amateur , Krishnan knew that life after tennis had to be planned. "I played for honour and pride, but I am a votary of professionalism. Like engineering, medicine and law, sport is also a profession. I could have taken Kramer's three-year contract if I were allowed to play Davis Cup and Wimbledon," said Krishnan.

Krishnan confessed he never paid for his air-ticket, which was always funded either by the government, or the AITA, or those who extended tournament invitations, or even well-wishers. Like most youngsters, Krishnan was excited by mobikes. Though he owned one, there were restrictions imposed by his father who feared it would lead to an accident and injury. Even before Krishnan was eligible for a driving licence, his father presented him a Morris Minor ("I can even recall the number — MTO 1509, a Tanjore registration," recalled Krishnan) and he secured special permission from the then Commissioner of Police, R. M. Mahadevan, for his son to drive around.

THE PAST AND PRESENT.: Ramanathan Krishnan and his wife Lalitha;-

Krishnan's professional career began as a representative of the Birla Group. He was later helped by Dharamsey Khatau to acquire the dealership of Calgas, which was subsequently taken over by the IOC. For over 40 years, Krishnan has been a privileged distributor of Indane to more than 40,000 customers. After the IOC takeover, when questions were raised about reviewing guidelines for dealership, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took personal interest to help out. She noted in the file that nothing should be disturbed — that "the Krishnan family should hang on to tennis and be given all governmental assistance."

The greatest moment in Krishnan's life occurred when he was just nine years old. It had a profound impact on him. At the Madrasi School in New Delhi, he prostrated and touched the feet of Mahatma Gandhi who was on a visit there. "I cannot describe that feeling. Probably, that moment influenced and guided my entire life. He is my hero, and I am a Gandhian," he confesses with a lump in his throat. Another memorable moment was the day `hockey wizard' Dhyan Chand visited his home and blessed him. "I did not know much then, but my father told me what a great player Dhyan Chand was," said Krishnan.

Many considered Krishnan their hero. But who is his favourite? "In sport, it is Rod Laver," said Krishnan. "I have beaten him a few times and seen him in action in several tournaments. But as he grew in stature, I began admiring the man for his wonderful tennis, genial qualities, and fierce determination. He was a demon on court. Even now we exchange greetings. I always send him a New Year card marked, `Rod, The Greatest'." Krishnan certainly has a liking for greats, whether it is in sport or other walks of life. Music fascinates him — Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar enthral him as much as Carnatic greats M. S. Subbulakshmi, Semmangudi and D. K. Pattammal. Recently, at Pune's Deccan Gymkhana, Krishnan made a conscious effort to meet Amit, son of Kishore, just to express what an ardent listener of Kishore he was. But there was a surprise in store — Amit was a great fan of Krishnan.

As a celebrity , Krishnan rubbed shoulders with the Indian glitterati. He fondly remembers `Sivaji' Ganesan for the donation the Tamil actor gave him in the early 1950s. Krishnan was sponsored by the Maharajah of Mysore, Jayachamaraja Wodiyar, for his first tour of UK in 1952.

Krishnan's admirers included matinee idol and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MGR, former President R. Venkataraman and former Finance Minister C. Subramaniam. Another fan was Bollywood star Raj Kapoor. "Whenever I went to Bombay, I played a few games with him," Krishnan said.

One admirer Krishnan remembers with a touch of sentiment is the late T. S. Santhanam of the TVS Group. "Believe me, he was there every year at Wimbledon to cheer me. Even when I played on outside courts, he was present, egging me on," Krishnan explained.

At work in his gas agency godown;-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Krishnan enjoyed a rapport with top Hollywood stars such as Charlton Heston, the award-winning actor in Ben Hur. At the Los Angeles Club, Heston and actor Peter Ustinov spent a lot of time with Krishnan, chatting, dining and playing a set or two. While shooting in Manila, Heston sent word to Krishnan, who was playing Davis Cup, to spend an evening with him. Krishnan is a devotee of Hanuman. "As a schoolboy, my father used to take me on his bicycle to the Hanuman Mandir in Delhi. That helped me develop the faith. However, all religions are okay with me," says Krishnan.

For Krishnan, the day now begins at 4 a.m. He takes a walk with wife Lalitha around the tennis court within his compound.

With Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

After breakfast and a quick glance at the newspapers, he goes to office by 8 a.m. He gets back home by noon for lunch and after a siesta, he steps into his tennis outfit to go to the Krishnan Tennis Centre (KTC) run by son Ramesh, where he starts work at 3.30 p.m. A quick dinner around 7-30 p.m. and then he is off to bed after watching a few TV programmes.

"I HAVE NO REGRETS," said Krishnan emphatically about his life. When pressed to name at least one, he relents. "I sometimes wonder how nice it would have been if I had played the Neale Fraser match at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium. When I watch the Chennai Open, I think it is one regret that I have." Krishnan has a terse piece of advice for all young tennis players and sportsmen: "If you fight to win a tennis match, you know how to face the problems of life."