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Wimbledon: Naresh Kumar hits rewind

Tracking the transformation at Wimbledon through the experiences of Indian tennis veteran Naresh Kumar

Naresh Kumar at his residence in Kolkata. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Naresh Kumar at his residence in Kolkata. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Talking to the doyen of Indian tennis, Naresh Kumar, is like stepping into a time machine. Kumar played his first Wimbledon in 1949 and even though he stopped taking to the field in 1968, he has been a regular on the courtside.

“I have been to Wimbledon 65 times for The Championships and have missed only two editions since 1949. The place has an irresistible old-world charm...," says the 88-year-old.

Kumar will miss the 2017 edition, though, owing to health concerns, and finally be among the plebeians who watch it on TV. “I am told it looks real good on HD TV," says the man who has seen this grass-court contest evolve into one of the top events in the sporting calendar.

Naresh Kumar accepting the Arjuna Award from then president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

The numbers game

As Kumar talks of his playing days, he etches the contrast between a tournament emerging from the shambles of an empire at the close of World War II and the massive money-making draw The Championships have now become. For a start, there was no prize money during Kumar’s time—all that the winner took home, till 1968, was a trophy. That is the year professionals were allowed entry. The men’s singles champion got £2,000 (around Rs1.2 lakh now), and the women’s singles champion, £750. The total prize money for the 1968 edition was £26,150.

Forty-nine years later, Wimbledon awards £35,000 to every first-round loser. Singles champions in both draws—men’s and women’s—get £2.2 million each. The total purse is £31.6 million.

“A consolation event for first- and second-round losers used to be held alongside, and I was runner-up twice in that. I won a £5 voucher to spend in a sports goods store," says Kumar. That was amateur sport in its heyday. Now, even runners-up in the Legends (an invitational for past greats) get £19,000, and the winner, £22,000.

If the prize money numbers aren’t impressive enough, do an equipment check. Kumar only had a couple of rackets on him when he stepped out on the hallowed turf for the first time. Today, even a rookie in the qualifying round carries at least half a dozen. Top players carry 8-10, with varied tension in the strings.

For Kumar, though, two were enough. “I had a racket restrung only when the guts broke. At that time, it was considered unlucky if your gut broke, as no two rackets felt the same."

According to the Wimbledon website, the 2015 edition saw 425 rackets strung on the Sunday before the first round; 14 stringers were on the job with electronic machines that can make the strands hum like a tuning fork at exactly the finicky level each player wants.

Kumar with Hollywood actor Frank Shields and other tennis players.

Clothes and colour

Those were also the days of coquettish prudery. Kumar recalls that Gussie Moran’s lace underwear was the talk of Wimbledon 1949. “Designer Teddy Tinling had stitched some spare lace to her underwear and that took The Championships by storm. All the old-timers were stunned. Somehow, they allowed it despite the club’s strict dress code."

The cases of such “daring" underwear surged over the years, and there have been several other issues regarding clothing and colours. Even now, Wimbledon only allows all-white clothing, with a centimetre of coloured trim as far as underwear is concerned.

What has changed drastically is the food; players can now opt for vegan and gluten-free meals. In contrast, Kumar recalls getting a piece of ham, some lettuce and two slices of bread for lunch. “A lot of players wanted to complain. I was happy with the unlimited supply of milk. I didn’t want to be part of any trouble. A few years later, hot lunch made its appearance." Now Wimbledon has a 2,200-strong catering staff and buffet spreads that are open all day.

Naresh Kumar with his wife Sunita after the Wimbledon Ball in 1962.

Bare basics

Times were gentler then, with none of the distance that’s come between the journeymen and the best in the game now. Robert Falkenburg was the defending champion at the 1949 edition. Kumar remembers the day when a gleaming convertible drove up next to him as he walked to the Wimbledon courts and the champion’s beaming face peeked out. “I remember him saying, ‘Hey, kid, you want a lift?’. It was unreal." Hypothetically speaking, that’s like Andy Murray pulling up next to India’s present best player, Yuki Bhambri (world rank 226, age 24) at this year’s Wimbledon and offering him a lift.

Present-day players have big entourages and a support system that travels with them. For instance, Novak Djokovic takes along his trainer, manager, physio, coach and dietitian. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have similar teams. “Few players then had coaches with them. No Indian had one with him till Akhtar Ali began to accompany Vijay Amritraj in the early 1970s. There were two physios in the dressing room and anyone could avail of them. Unlike modern players, we didn’t know the advantages of a rub-down before or after a match," Kumar says.

Naresh Kumar with Jawaharlal Nehru.

Behaviour theory

Today there are 170 Jaguars—the tournament’s official car. “It was quite a shock on the morning of my first match, when a Rolls-Royce came to pick me. Wimbledon had a fleet of the luxury cars at the time and the liveried chauffeurs had an old-world charm and confidence that has died now," Kumar says.

And then there were parties. “Wimbledon was a great social event for players. The Middle Sunday garden party at Hurlingham was most sought after." Apparently, those who hadn’t behaved themselves on and off the court were not invited.

The days of John McEnroe and Ilie Năstase—the first quintessential bad boys of tennis—were still far in the future and the likes of Jeff Tarango impossible to imagine. Tarango defaulted on his third-round match in 1995, accusing the umpire of favouring the other player. His wife, Benedicte, followed up by slapping the umpire twice. Kumar saw the whole thing. “All this was unthinkable (back then). In fact, they would never invite you back (to play in The Championships). They handled explosive situations with great aplomb. Some of the Americans rebelled but it was all managed without a fuss. One lived up to what was considered sporting behaviour along Rudyard Kipling’s lines." Of course, unlike the professional system which exists now under the aegis of the player’s body, Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), in the past individual tournaments could ban players they didn’t like. No reasons had to be ascribed, no appeals were entertained.

Naresh Kumar and with his wife in the Royal Box at Wimbledon.

Different folks, different strokes

Everybody served and volleyed. And everybody hit single-hand backhands—well, almost everybody. “I can recall barely two players with double-fisted backhands in 1949. There weren’t any universal styles of hitting like there are in modern tennis. Wimbledon brought together tennis cultures from across the globe and playing styles were more varied. There was no way to know just who was playing with what technique till you saw them in person. Scouting your opponent’s game style was a tedious process." No YouTube on the smartphone, you see.

Things were largely sedate even after professionals were allowed in from 1968. Then Borg-mania hit Wimbledon. “When I first went there, there was one Bobby (an English policeman) guarding the gate to the whole grounds the day before the tournament." Now, private security agencies provide as many as 450 private guards and there are a host of police and military personnel. “The first time that the real need for additional security was felt was when the female fan following of Björn Borg (five-time winner, 1976-80) began to get out of hand." The Daily Telegraph reports that, owing to the enhanced terrorist threat, this year there will be checkpoints on the roads around the club, a first in the tournament’s history. The newspaper notes that a web of steel with roadblocks and armed police will protect Wimbledon 2017.

By the 1970s, the sport had begun to veer away from its elitist roots and the fan base had grown beyond quaint clubs and the garden party crowd. Security wasn’t that big a deal. Things were decidedly different in Kumar’s time. “It was easy to buy a ground ticket and walk into the grounds in the early days. Schoolgirls would come after classes," he says. After all, tennis was still largely a leisurely afternoon pursuit. “Nobody hit too hard. There were just a few big servers. The standard of the game was largely mediocre. It wouldn’t even compare with today’s qualifying event."

It used to take Naresh Kumar about 29 hours to get to Wimbledon by plane. “Those propeller-driven Air India planes left one shaking like a leaf when one landed eventually. Many people from South America even took long boat rides to get there in time. I was once given £180 by the organizers as reimbursement for my expenses. Of course, I had behaved well enough to deserve it!”-

Modern machine

Even as Wimbledon has clung to tradition, it has evolved. “What they have successfully managed to do is retain the outward old-world appearance, while inside the Club is now a sleek money-making machine totally in sync with the needs of modern commerce. It’s all subtle and dignified but they have their numbers figured," says Kumar. Indian tennis’ smartest business brain, Mahesh Bhupathi, calls Wimbledon the “biggest revenue-making property in tennis". Since the tournament is owned by a private club, its actual numbers are never revealed.

By keeping a strict check on membership and issuing prime tickets to its own, Wimbledon has built a snob value that’s hard for other tournaments to match. It’s a wonderful business model, in which huge aspirational demand is created for the limited opportunities to attend the event in style. The result: long queues for tickets and constant glamour and hype surrounding the whole deal. The brands associated with the tournament include Rolex, Ralph Lauren, Jaguar and Champagne Lanson.

In its 131st edition, Wimbledon may appear to have the idiosyncrasies of an erstwhile era, but as the switch to slower courts and heavier balls after 2001 showed, this is its public face. The change in grass, after all, fundamentally altered the very nature of the game on these hallowed lawns. The more absorbing contests ensure that more than half a million people will visit the tournament this July. They have frozen the price of a portion of strawberries and cream at £2.50 per serving since 2010; 28,000kg of the fruit and 10,000 litres of fresh cream are expected to be consumed. Go figure how much they’ll earn from selling that prized treat alone. And let’s not even begin to figure what the administrators actually rake in. A Forbes analysis rates Wimbledon the most profitable of all Slams, with earnings of £56.1 million in 2014.

As Kumar puts it, there is, of course, far more to the place than the moolah. “It’s the sheer ability to retain the charm and ethos for decades on end. It’s remarkable." His greatest regret is that when a few senior members suggested he apply for membership of the club, he did not. “That was a fatal mistake. There is, after all, no other tournament like Wimbledon and there is no possibility of any other even coming close."

My favourite Wimbledon memory

Leander Paes

Won five Wimbledon doubles titles (1999—2, 2003, 2010, 2015)

I have so many splendid memories from The Championships. I treasure each time I have played there, no matter the result. It’s the old-world charm that never ceases to impress me.

I can, of course, never forget the junior Wimbledon title I won in 1990. That was the first affirmation on the world stage that I had what it takes to beat the best. The 1999 doubles title with Mahesh (Bhupathi) stays up there. That was a dream year for us as we made the finals of all Slams but getting that Wimbledon title was the cherry on the cake. I also got the mixed title with Lisa Raymond. What made that year so incredible was the physical effort involved, as I played around 38 sets in the last four days to win the two titles.

My four mixed trophies are all dear to me, but my 2003 title with Martina Navratilova was extra special as she is a legend and a great friend. It was my
privilege to help her win her 20th title at Wimbledon.

Mahesh Bhupathi

Won three Wimbledon doubles titles (1999, 2002, 2005)

The last 5 seconds of the 1999 win will stay imprinted in my mind forever. The two of us (Bhupathi and Leander Paes) proved that Indians could dominate the world in a global sport. For me that was a very important moment, not just for our careers, but also in Indian sport.

Wimbledon was special, as my father had taken me to see the event many times as a kid. Growing up, playing at Wimbledon was a dream; to actually win it was unbelievable. It was all the more important given the stature the event has in India.

Wimbledon is the premier tennis property in the world financially. But what I appreciate is the classy manner in which they have managed to retain their traditions while adapting to the needs of modern sport.

Jaidip Mukerjea

Former Indian Davis Cup captain, played Wimbledon singles four years (1963, 1964, 1966, 1973)

That I made the last 16 in singles four times and had a genuine chance to be the fourth Indian to figure in the singles quarter-finals at Wimbledon is my biggest regret and memory from The Championships. As far as tennis players are concerned, Wimbledon has a halo. It is this other-worldly experience in a world that seems to be always in a hurry.

I also formed some of my best friendships there. My relationship with Rod Laver (the only player in history to win all four Slams in a year; he did it twice) is one of my cherished memories and he still stays a great friend.

Wimbledon was also really important for us because of India’s relationship with Britain.

SP Misra

Former Indian Davis Cup captain, played Wimbledon singles in 1964, 1965, 1966

It was an amazing feeling to be part of an event which represented the pinnacle of tennis competition.

For us from India, it was really exciting to be a part of Wimbledon as there were these goodies they handed out. This was before prize money began, but we looked forward to getting those Fred Perry clothes, Dunlop shoes and Slazenger rackets which came the way of a Wimbledon player. It was a pleasant change from the Rs12 Bata shoes and home-made shorts.

Wimbledon has a charm that’s different from any other tournament. Playing at Wimbledon also meant that you certainly became a celebrity in your own home town in India. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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