Sixty years ago, in the days leading up to the start of Wimbledon, the legitimate question on many Indian minds was, “Can Krish win Wimbledon?” During the previous two years, Ramanathan Krishnan had been in the final four in singles at the world’s pre-eminent tennis tournament. On each occasion, Krishnan lost only to the eventual champion—Neale Fraser in 1960 and Rod Laver in 1961.
The fourth-seeded Krishnan suffered an ankle injury in the third round in 1962, and no Indian—or Asian—has since achieved what Krishnan did in 1960 and 1961. As a 19-year-old in 1973, Vijay Amritraj came closest, battling eventual champion Jan Kodes in an epic 5-set quarter-final, after his compatriot Jaidip Mukerjea had lost to Kodes in the previous round. That year, there were 7 Indians in the men’s singles main draw at Wimbledon.
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Since 1993, however, Indian men’s representation in singles at Wimbledon has faded. Doubles became an Indian specialisation, but even that is increasingly tenuous.
This year, Sania Mirza will be playing her last Wimbledon after a heroic comeback from a maternity break in 2018-19. Even in her final year on tour, she is ranked 22 in women’s doubles, and a contender for two titles, as is the 42-year-old Rohan Bopanna (twice a semi-finalist in men’s doubles at Wimbledon). In singles, there were just two Indians, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Yuki Bhambri, playing the qualifying rounds this year, but both lost to seeded opponents.
A RICH LEGACY
1973, when Amritraj played the quarter-final, wasalso the year when the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act came into force, making it increasingly difficult for Indians to finance international tennis careers. Krishnan benefitted from a rich legacy of fine tennis players who regularly played Wimbledon in the 1940s (Ghouse Mohammed, Dilip Bose, Sumant Misra) and 1950s (Naresh Kumar), while his example inspired Premjit Lall, Jaidip Mukherjea, S.P. Misra and Akhtar Ali in the 1960s, Jasjit Singh, Sashi Menon and the Amritraj brothers in the 1970s.
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Vijay Amritraj was to make the quarter-final again in 1981, taking the first two sets before succumbing to Jimmy Connors in five sets. Krishnan’s son, Ramesh, made the singles quarter-final in 1986, having won the junior singles in 1979 (when he also won the junior title at the French Open). Ramesh made the men’s singles quarter-final twice at the US Open, in 1981 and 1987, and was consistently ranked among the world’s top-50 male players from 1984 until March 1989, and among the top 100 from 1979 to 1991. Reflecting the sad decline in India’s tennis tradition, no Indian male has risen into the top 50 in the past 33 years.
Leander Paes became the third Indian winner of the junior Wimbledon singles title (in 1991), but his highest pro singles ranking was 73 and he never made it past the men’s singles second round at Wimbledon. Somdev Dev Varman promised much by winning two consecutive US NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) singles titles, and briefly reached a pro singles ranking of 62. But his baseline grinding style of play was unsuited to grass, and he never made it past the second round at Wimbledon.
Famously, Paes achieved extraordinary things while representing India in team competitions. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he won India’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years, beating higher-ranked players in every round to bring home the bronze medal in men’s singles. In the Davis Cup, Paes beat French Open finalist Henri Leconte and then-world #16 Andre Boetsch on the clay at Frejus, combining with Ramesh to pull off one of the most audacious triumphs in the Cup’s history. He also beat the 1991 Wimbledon men’s singles champion Goran Ivanisevic in a Davis Cup match on grass.
Given his exceptional reflexes, Paes chose to focus on doubles, and he co-holds the record for most mixed doubles titles in Wimbledon history (four). In 1999, he won both the mixed doubles and men’s doubles titles at Wimbledon, the latter in partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi.
The Paes-Bhupathi pairing was soon dubbed ‘The Indian Express’ as they reached all four Slam finals in 1999. Paes went on to win a career Grand Slam in both men’s doubles and mixed doubles, while Bhupathi won a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles. Both reached the world #1 ranking in men’s doubles.
In 2005, Sania Mirza emerged as a trailblazer for Indian women’s tennis. In her very first Slam, Mirza reached the third round of the Australian Open, something no Indian woman had done before. Up against Serena Williams, one of the greatest players of all time, 18-year-old Mirza’s breath-taking forehand made the tennis world take notice. At Wimbledon that year, Sania took a set off the reigning US Open champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, before going down in three sets.
After making the last-16 at the US Open in 2005, she became the first Indian woman ranked in the singles top-50, and in 2006 the first Indian woman to be seeded at a Slam. Before Mirza, no Indian woman had been ranked among the top-100 in women’s singles. The closest was Nirupama Vaidyanathan (who reached 138). Leela Row Dayal was the first Indian woman to win a match at Wimbledon in 1934.
In 1952, Rita Davar reached the junior singles final, and qualified for the women’s singles main draw for the next two years. In 1955, she partnered with Ramanathan Krishnan to make the third round of the mixed doubles at Wimbledon. Then there was a long hiatus for Indian women at Wimbledon, until Nirupama Mankad (five-time winner of the Asian women’s championships) partnered Anand Amritraj to make the second round of mixed doubles in 1973.
Mirza reached a career-high singles ranking of 27, but suffered injury breaks in each of the six years that she played as a singles professional on the WTA tour. After her third surgery in 2010, she shifted her focus to doubles, and by April 2015, had become the world’s best women’s doubles player.
Hopes for the future are focused on 14-year-old Manas Dhamne, the world’s best player in his age group since he was 12, now training in Italy, and a clutch of NRI teenagers—including last year’s Wimbledon junior champion Samir Banerjee and the current junior #7 Nishesh Basavareddy. For a nation that has produced three junior champions and three other junior singles finalists, the absence of Indians in the junior men’s singles field in the last three Wimbledons is a telling sign for the future.
Prasenjit K. Basu is Chief Economist at ICICI Securities. He has been blogging about Indian tennis for 20 years.