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The High Courts: India's Tennis Stars, and their Wimbledon Memories

What does it feel like to play in the tennis world's most prestigious tournament? Only a handful of Indians can tell you. Here are a few of them

Published: Jul 5, 2014 06:23:41 AM IST
Updated: Jun 27, 2014 11:48:20 AM IST
The High Courts: India's Tennis Stars, and their Wimbledon Memories

Naresh Kumar

Wimbledon years
1949-1968

Best results
Singles: Round 4 (1955); finalist in Wimbledon plate (1952 and 1961)
Doubles: Quarterfinals (1953, 1955, 1958)
Mixed doubles: Quarterfinals (1957)

I got my first taste of the Wimbledon experience even before I stepped on to the court.  

It was in 1949, and I was putting up with an elderly landlady in Mayfair. I am sure she wasn’t betting much on a young lad with an Air India airbag and a few tennis rackets. It all changed on the morning of my first match, when she came running to me and announced in utter disbelief, “There’s a Rolls-Royce waiting for you.”

Wimbledon organisers generally sent a pick-up for overseas players. But a Rolls-Royce? Who would have thought? Quietly, I sank into the backseat in an attempt to hide myself and made my way there for my first match, against Gerry Oakley, and up-and-coming British player.

We played in Court no. 5. There was a sprinkling of colonial boxwallas from Calcutta who had come to watch me play.  It was an extremely British ambience as spectators were having tea on an adjoining court; I could hear the tinkling of the cups and spoons. There were five or six bada saabs, who were in India at some point of time. Every now and then, they would come and say a patronising hello, or pat me on my back and say ‘shabaash’. Can’t say I appreciated it much.

I won my first match against Oakley and went on to win another in 1949. I was more at home on grass than on any other surface. In my 20-odd years at The Championships, I played close to a hundred matches and won quite a few. I would have been very rich if I was playing now but, back then, we were all playing as amateurs.

The playing experience at Wimbledon was by far the best. Everything ran like clockwork. The crowd was fair, there was no screaming and shouting. And, of course, the spectators were very knowledgeable.

Before I left for my first Wimbledon my coach, SJ Mathews, warned me that I should not even look at the umpire even if I got a bad call. Instead, I should just move on to the next point. These are very old ideas now but, at that point, such was the stature of the game. Both the game and the tournament are far more commercial now, but such is the beauty of Wimbledon that even the commercialisation is very low key. You don’t have ads blaring over the microphone, hoardings covering the venue. Here, tennis reigns supreme.

This is what makes Wimbledon the greatest tournament in the world. It’s the perfect tournament; it has never failed the game. I am sure if I were to play today, it would be as mindboggling an experience as my first.

As told to Kathakali Chanda


The High Courts: India's Tennis Stars, and their Wimbledon Memories
Jaidip Mukerjea

Wimbledon years
1959-1974

Best results

Singles: Round 4 (1963, 1964, 1966 and 1973)
Doubles: Quarterfinal (1966, 1967)
Mixed doubles: First round (1963)

My first chance to play Wimbledon came in 1959. I was 17, and still in my senior Cambridge year in school. I was not that good in studies and my father didn’t want me to go. That was when my school principal stepped in, ensured I get extra tuitions and said it would be a great honour for the school.  

For most Indian players from our times, playing in Wimbledon was the ultimate dream. If you look at my career, you’ll see that I have played just a few editions of the Australian, French and US Opens, but I played Wimbledon for 15 years. Not only is it the oldest grand slam, it is also the best.

Such was my fascination for the tournament that in my first year, I had gone on a recce on my own before my first match.
Those days, we were all amateur players. Our tennis association would buy us a flight ticket for about Rs 3,500 and the tournament would give us a travelling allowance of about £100. Neither was there any prize money, nor would there be an appearance fee. But we weren’t bothered about it. We just wanted to play at Wimbledon. I remember in 1973, [a few years after the Open era began], I reached the last 16 and won about £500. I thought that was the end of the world; that meant so much for me.

Wimbledon was also special since I felt at home on the grass courts we were playing on. I have grown up playing at the South Club in Kolkata, which had the best grass courts in the world after Wimbledon. Even though the courts at the Championships have become slower now, it’s still one of the charms of watching tennis there.

Wimbledon also gave me one of my sporting nightmares. In 1963, I was playing Pat Rodriguez in the first round. We were two sets all and I was serving for the match at 5-4 in the final set when heavy rain stopped play. The match would resume only on the next morning, so I spent a sleepless night just a game away from a win. And when we began next day, I started with a double fault. Finally, I held my serve, but the relief I had after winning one game was like winning an entire match.

I go back to Wimbledon every year, not only to watch, but also to catch up with great friends I made through tennis: Tony Roche, Roger Taylor, Roy Emerson. At Wimbledon, I made friends for life.

As told to Kathakali Chanda

The High Courts: India's Tennis Stars, and their Wimbledon Memories
Image: Keystone / Getty Images



Ramesh Krishnan


Wimbledon years

1979-1990

Best results
Singles: Quarterfinal (1986)

Legend has it that a youngster on his first visit to London asks a taxi driver, “How do I get to Wimbledon?” Pat comes the reply, “Practice, mate, practice.”

To use a cliché, Wimbledon is the Mecca of tennis; it’s the equivalent of Lord’s for a cricketer. This is the oldest and the most traditional of all Grand Slams. It’s a big garden party and the event is bigger than the players.

People who come to watch Wimbledon are connoisseurs of the game; they support players irrespective of their nationalities. Of course, it’s a different thing altogether when a Tim Henman or an Andy Murray plays: If you hear the deafening roar, never again will you ask me about the proverbial British stiff upper lip.  

Traditionally, Indians have been good on grass because we play on it from an early age. Also, we play a lot of our Davis Cup matches on the surface. Yet, you’ve got to gear up for Wimbledon by making sure you are in a good physical condition. The set of muscles you use to play on grass is different from those on other surfaces. Besides, once you are done with Roland Garros, you have to mentally prepare yourself to move your game away from the baseline and start charging forward. For me, the best way to prepare for Wimbledon was to win a few warm-up matches before the tournament.

Though reaching the quarterfinals in 1986 was one of the highest points of my career, every match that I’ve won at The Championships has been thrilling; more so, when I’ve played on the Centre Court.

Playing on the Centre Court at Wimbledon is a special feeling. Unlike other majors, you don’t get to hit on the court during practice. You step on to Wimbledon’s most hallowed courts only when you are playing a match. It’s easy to get carried away initially, particularly when you know the who’s-who (read the British royalty) are watching you.

It’s been close to 25 years since I played my last match at Wimbledon. There are several things that have changed since: The old Court No 1 is now gone; Centre Court has a roof.

The organisers invite me to the tournament every year, and I am making the trip this year. I am really excited. You see, some things never change.

As told to Kathakali Chanda



The High Courts: India's Tennis Stars, and their Wimbledon Memories
Vijay Amritraj


Wimbledon years
1972-1990

Best results
Singles: Quarterfinal (1973, 1981)
Doubles: Semifinal (1976)
Mixed doubles: Quarterfinal (1976, 1981)

This would be my 45th consecutive year at the Wimbledon [first as a visitor, then as a player and now as a commentator], but it still feels special to walk through the gates of the All England Club. For players and spectators alike, Wimbledon is so much more than just a tennis event. People don’t just come here when the tournament is on; it’s on top of the bucket list for everyone visiting London round the year.

Each Grand Slam has its own charm. But Wimbledon is special because of its loyalty to tradition despite embracing all that’s modern: Technology, professionalism, infrastructure. Besides, other Grand Slams seem to be a lot more commercial than Wimbledon. You can see a whole bunch of advertising stuff. At Wimbledon, you won’t see any sponsor ads anywhere. The way they manage to hold on to the past, yet move into the future is amazing.

It’s a dream to step onto the Centre Court. You have to walk through the visitors to reach the other courts. But there are special corridors that take you from the locker rooms to the Centre Court. You don’t have to go out into the public areas, you don’t meet anybody; your mind is entirely on the match at hand. When you have a match on the Centre Court, you can feel it.

The Centre Court also gives you the chance to play in front of the royal family. It has been an absolute thrill, particularly to play in front of Princess Diana. It didn’t matter who I was, just that I was an Indian playing on the Centre Court.  
 
I have very fond memories of victories at Wimbledon and playing legends like [Bjorn] Borg and [Jimmy] Connors. One match that stands out in my mind is the win against French Open champion Yannick Noah on the Centre Court in 1985. There have been heartbreaks too, like the loss to Jan Kodes in 1973, where I was on the verge of matchpoint. I am also proud to be an honorary member of the All England Club, a rare honour for someone without a singles title.

These days, Wimbledon means a lot of nostalgia, a chance to meet old friends. Sometimes Borg and Connors are here, sometimes younger guys, like [Boris] Becker, join us. It gives us an opportunity to have a good laugh about the old times. At Wimbledon, we are back to being boys again.

As told to Kathakali Chanda


The High Courts: India's Tennis Stars, and their Wimbledon Memories
Image: Adnan Abidi / Reuters




Rohan Bopanna

Wimbledon years
2008–Current

Best results
Doubles: Semifinal (2013)

In 2008, when I started playing at Wimbledon, my then-physio, Shayamal Vallabhjee, and I had vowed to shave our heads if I make it to the quarter final. We waited for two years and in 2010, I played my first quarterfinal there. I lost the match and went straight to the locker room to get my head shaved. When I came out, my friends and family, who were visiting me, were in a state of shock because just minutes before they had seen me on court with all the hair on my head!

Wimbledon is my favourite Grand Slam. Representing the country here is always a great feeling, especially when you have fans from India cheering you on. Playing my first semi-final here last year, and also making it to the prestigious Last Eight club is really close to my heart.

The tournament’s rich history, the tradition of wearing all-white, the beautiful grass courts and the spectacular views from the players’ restaurant overlooking the courts make Wimbledon truly special. To have royalty come out and watch it is amazing.

Crowds here are a different breed too, with fans parking themselves overnight so that they can queue up in the morning and be among the first ones to get tickets. They understand the sport really well, and whether they are cheering for your opponent or you, they always appreciate good tennis. That, for a player, is more important than anything else.

I normally like to stay in London from a week before the tournament begins, practise as much as I can, get a good feel of the grass, and work on my fitness levels. Indians grow up playing on grass courts with Davis Cup matches and other tournaments across the country taking place on such courts. It helps them get used to the surface and perform well at Wimbledon. I am looking forward to the tournament and hoping to step onto the Centre Court soon.

As told to Sohini Mitter


The High Courts: India's Tennis Stars, and their Wimbledon Memories
Sania Mirza

Wimbledon years

2005-Current

Best results
Singles: Round 2 (2005, 2007-09)
Doubles: Semifinal (2011)

You hear it so much that it seems a cliché. But there is no other way to say it: Wimbledon is a very special tournament.

There is no bigger stage for a tennis player than Wimbledon. Be it the strawberry and cream, the all-white attire, Wimbledon has an old-world charm that sets it apart. I’ve been lucky to win here early in my career (girls’ doubles title in 2003). Each win that you have as a player is memorable, but when you do it at Wimbledon, it’s extra special.   

Playing on the Centre Court is the icing on the cake. Every player has a bit of nervous energy before each match. Multiply that three times when you are playing on the Centre Court. No matter how many times you play there, you still have butterflies in your stomach.

Minutes before the match begins, we are briefed about some of the traditions we are expected to follow on the court. For instance, you can’t walk out after the match is over; you can only leave with your opponent. Sometimes, particularly when you’ve lost, it feels a bit harsh since you don’t want to stay back and watch your opponent celebrate. But, at Wimbledon, I’d gladly do it, since these traditions make the tournament different.

Another great thing about Wimbledon is the crowd.

It’s a pleasure playing in front of such a passionate and appreciative crowd. They put the sport ahead of everything.

Indian players also get some of the loudest cheers from the spectators,  because there is a throng of Indian tourists and expats every year. We get the maximum support at Wimbledon and the US Open.    

As told to Kathakali Chanda

(This story appears in the 11 July, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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