The never-say-die Krish


Ramanathan Krishnan pulled off one of the greatest wins of his glittering career to take India to the Davis Cup Challenge Round for the first time in 1966, writes Gulu Ezekiel.

India's record in the Davis Cup — the symbol of international supremacy in tennis — is second to none among the Asian nations. India reached the summit clash thrice — it forfeited the 1974 final to South Africa, and lost in the Challenge Round in 1966 and the final in 1987.

Till 1972 the reigning champion was directly seeded to the final, known as the Challenge Round. Australia, winner in 1965, could thus sit back and watch while the rest sweated it out for the honour to play the reigning champion for the Davis Cup.

In the 1960s, Indian tennis was all about the incomparable Ramanathan Krishnan, backed up by those two Calcutta stalwarts, Premjit Lal and Jaideep Mukherjea. They travelled the tennis world together.

India's long journey to Melbourne began when they routed Iran 5-0 in Ahmedabad, in the first match of the Zonal section. India, similarly, trounced Sri Lanka in Trivandrum in the next match and then travelled to Tokyo to take on Japan in the East Zone final. Krishnan was in his element and India came out 4-1 winners.

Now it was back to Delhi to face West Germany in the inter-zonal semi-finals. The Germans had progressed by defeating Great Britain and South Africa.

Germany had in its ranks the accomplished Wilhelm Bungert, who would reach the final at Wimbledon eight months later. But Krishnan made short work of him in the opening tie, 7-5, 7-5, 6-4.

Mukherjea then made it 2-0 for India as he got the better of the German No. 2, Ingo Budding.

Doubles was India's strength and so it came as a shock when Krishnan and Mukherjea were beaten by Bungert and Budding.

Even among the partisan crowd, few gave any chance to Mukherjea when he faced Bungert in the first of the reverse singles on the last day. It looked certain that the tie would go down to the wire. But the Indian stormed back after losing the first set 4-6 to win the next three 8-6, 8-6, 6-3 in one of the best performances of his career. It was also the first time that India had won an inter-zonal tie after losing their previous eight.

Barely three weeks later the Indians were to face Brazil on the lush green South Club courts of Calcutta. Brazil, led by the 21-year-old star, Thomas Koch, was pretty confident after having stunned the United States in an earlier round.

Krishnan would once again be India's trump card. Desperate for practice, he flew to Calcutta two weeks before the tie in December as cyclonic weather back home in Madras had kept him off the courts.

Sure enough Koch, pretty comfortable on grass, blasted Mukherjea in straight sets in the opening tie, confirming the visitors' tag as the favourites to go through.

Now India once again turned to their stalwart. And Krishnan did not disappoint — he rarely did in the Davis Cup. He levelled the tie by easily beating Brazil's No. 2 player, Jose-Edison Mandarino.

In the doubles the next day Krishnan decided to partner Mukherjea. It took them five sets to conquer the Brazilians and India led 2-1 going into the final day.

It all came down to Koch versus Krishnan for a berth in the Challenge Round, as Mandarino edged Mukherjea in five sets in the fourth match. What transpired is part of the rich folklore of the Davis Cup, one of the greatest fight-backs in its annals.

The tie had to be extended to the fourth day as bad light stopped play with Koch leading 6-3, 4-6, 12-10. Krishnan squandered three set points in the third set and now had his back to the wall. But that night, before going to sleep, he said to himself: "All is not lost. I just have to win a best of three sets match in two straight sets on the morrow."

Approaching his 30th birthday, Krishnan found the going tough the next morning. Koch raced 5-2 ahead in the fourth set as the stands rapidly emptied. Even his loyal fans had given up — but not Krishnan. Down 0-30 in the eighth game and close to defeat, Krishnan clawed his way back to 30-all and then managed to save the game. Still, he was not out of danger, especially with Koch up 5-3 and now serving at 30-15.

Once again Krishnan roared back. He suddenly recalled that he had been told that the Brazilian was weak in moving forward. Audaciously he began peppering his opponent with drop shots and short balls. Koch was stunned. He dropped the fourth set 7-5 and trailed 0-4 in the decider. This after having the match seemingly firm in his grip in the fourth set. By now Krishnan was simply unstoppable.

The spectators rushed back after listening on the radio of the amazing progress made by their favourite. The stands were packed again and they roared Krishnan on to one of the greatest wins of his glittering career.

The final score was 3-6, 6-4, 10-12, 7-5, 6-2 — a testament to his never-say-die spirit. It was unbelievable, but true — India was in the Challenge Round for the first time!

It was a heady feeling, though it would not last for long. No one was under any illusion really going into the final at the Kooyong courts in Melbourne. The Australians were well nigh invincible, particularly at home — and so they proved.

Still, the Indians could come home with their heads held high. They were beaten 4-1, but not disgraced, thanks largely to the doubles pairing of Krishnan and Mukherjea. They stunned the fancied John Newcombe and Tony Roche, the previous year's Wimbledon champions, in four sets. It announced to the world that Indian tennis had come of age.