SportsThat Special: The History of Indian Tennis

As a British colony, the inventors of tennis (erstwhile lawn tennis), brought the sport to India in the 1880s. The British Army and the Civilian officers introduced it in India, during their colonial rule. The interest in the game accelerated rapidly, which led to the formation of the tournament called Punjab Lawn Tennis Championships, Lahore (erstwhile India, now Pakistan), in 1885.

Soon after, India got its first professional player, namely BK Nehru, in 1905, who went on to play at Wimbledon. He played only at Wimbledon because Australian had come into existence in the same year, and was not a major tournament until 1924. About the French Open, it was only allowed for the French club members to participate, while only the members of the USNLTA (United States of National Lawn Tennis Academy) were permitted at the US Open.

3 years after Nehru, the second Indian professional player graduated, namely Nihal Singh, who competed at Wimbledon from 1908 to 1910, in both Singles and Doubles. Mixed doubles was not a discipline by then. His best performance in Singles was the 3R, in 1910. Mohd Saleem, brothers AH Fayzee and AA Fayzee, and Jagat Mohan Lal, also played at the Wimbledon, who made it to last 16 stages. Also, in 1910, the second tournament of India came into existence, which was the Bengal Lawn Tennis Championships, played at Allahabad. By this time, the craze for the sport growing, growing manifolds, like Football and Cricket.

Being a British colony, the British civil servants were appointed to work in India, and not only in the United Kingdom. One of those civil servants, Steve Jacobs, started playing lawn tennis, and represented India, and not UK, at the Wimbledon Championships. He continued to do it for 10 years, 1914-1923. Also, another player from the British personnel, Lewis Deane, played for India, and was amongst the mixed doubles finalists in 1923, alongside Dorothy Shephard Barron. Also, David Rutnam and Thomas Henderso Brookes are a few those names who played for India, being British nationals.

Initially, the British personnel dominated in the Indian championships at Lahore and Allahabad, but soon, Mohd Saleem conquered the prestige, winning the tournament in 1915, 1919-26. Thereafter, in 1920, the AILTA (All India Lawn Tennis Association) was formed, after Nihal Singh had completed an over a decade in his career. Hence, India managed to debut for the Davis Cup in the succeeding year.

In 1921. the first team of the Davis Cup consisted of Steve Jacobs, Mohd Saleem, Lewis Deane, and AA Fayzee, who defeated the strong French team in the quarter-finals. Later, from 1921-29, Indians defeated numerous high ranked Europeans players from France, Romania, Holland, Greece, Belgium, and won several ties, but could never reach the finals. Noticeably, teams from Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, England and Yugoslavia (now Serbia) visited India. The most notable amongst foreign visitors during this period were the American Bill Tilden, considered by many as the greatest ever in modern tennis, and Henry Cochet, an all-time great and one of the famous “Four Musketeers” of France. At the upcoming 1924 Paris Olympics, Mohd Saleem reached the semi-finals. About 15 years later, Ghouse Mohd, India’s undisputed number one in the 40s, reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.

Ramanathan getting the Padma Bhushan from PM

After the very painful partition, after the situation of the Indians got somehow settled, there came a name in existence, who was Ramanathan Krishnan, who began the golden and the most fruitful period for the Indian tennis. Winning the Boys’ Singles title at Wimbledon, he turned professional the same year, i.e. in 1954. He also became the first Asian to play at the Boys tournament at the Grand Slam, defeating Ashley Cooper in the finals. He shone, a lot, representing India on the world map in the 60s. He was seeded number 7 at Wimbledon, 1960-61, lost to the eventual champions in the semi-final, i.e. Neal Fraser and Rod Laver respectively. He was ranked number 4 in 1962, the highest ever in his career, and the highest achieved by an Indian professional. Meanwhile, the Davis Cup team of 1966, consisting of Ramanathan Krishnan, Premjit Lal, SP Misra, Jaidip Mukherjea, captained by RK Khanna, managed to reach the finals, losing to Australia. A noticeable victory for India was noted there, when Ramanathan and Jaidip defeated John Newcombe and Tony Roche, the Wimbledon champions of 1965. The country managed to be the zonal champions at least, every year.

In 1970, the most successful Vijay Amritraj came into the show. He turned professional that year, and played at Wimbledon for 19 consecutive years, 1972-1990. He made it to the quarter-finals at the US Open in 1973 and 1981, and also at Wimbledon in 1973 and 1974, defeating the big names such as Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and John Newcombe. Looking in the increasing interest in the 60s, India began with its first tournament in 1973, the Indian Open, as a part of Grand Prix tennis circuit, played on outdoor clay. Vijay emerged as the only Indian player to win the tournament, which he won four times. It got defuncted in 1979.

In 1974, the Indian Davis Cup team was one of the finalists, but the team forfeited in protest of the apartheid regime. Hence, the South African team was crowned the champion, receiving a walkover. This year also saw Jasjit Singh, becoming the first Sikh to play the Davis Cup. In the latter half of the 80s, Fed Cup team made a debut, not qualifying so far.

26 years after his father accomplished the feat, the 18-year old, Ramesh Krishnan, won the Boys’ Wimbledon Championship, and at the Roland Garros Championships too. and became the world number 1. He turned professional the same year. After turning a professional, he reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 1986, and twice at the US Open, in 1981 and 1987. He was admired for his touch, anticipation and all-round game, but his lack of a killer stroke or a strong service kept him from reaching the very top of the men’s game. Also, the Indian Davis Cup team lost to Sweden in the finals.

Around this time, tennis had existed for 100 years in India, with no player holding a Grand Slam title, in any of the disciplines. Besides, the Indians had prospered perpetually in the sport, but the glory was still far. Not so far, Leander Paes, turned professional in 1991. In 1992, he reached the quarter finals of the doubles event in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with Ramesh Krishnan.

He went one better at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he beat Fernando Meligeni to win the bronze medal, thus becoming the first Indian to win an individual medal since KD Jadhav won bronze at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics more than four decades earlier.

Having won the Olympics medal, a Grand Slam was missing from his CV. Only after Mahesh Bhupati turned professional in 1995, another Indian came into the fixture. In 1997, the two joined hands, played, and won many tournaments together. In the same year, India, finally after 112 years of being into the game, an Indian won a Grand Slam, credited by Mahesh Bhupati, who won the Men’s Doubles at French Open.

In 1999, the Indian pair, reached the finals of all four Grand Slams, winning the title at The Wimbledon Championships and The Roland Garros Championships. While Bhupati has won 12 Grand Slams in his career, he also completed a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles, when he won the Australian Open in 2006, with Martina Hingis. Paes has won eight doubles and ten mixed doubles Grand Slam titles, and is the oldest man to have won a Grand Slam title. He holds a career Grand Slam in men’s doubles and mixed doubles, and achieved the rare men’s doubles/mixed doubles double at the 1999 Wimbledon tournament. His mixed doubles Wimbledon title in 2010 made him the second man (after Rod Laver) to win Wimbledon titles in three decades.

All about the men, the women’s side lacked the personalities. In 2003, Sania Mirza, the shimmering star of the women’s side, single-handedly shouldered the fame and the game, when she won the Girls’ Doubles Championships at Wimbledon, and turned professional the same year itself. She, along with a team, with Manisha Malhotra, helped India qualify the Asia/Oceania Group I in Fed Cup, their best performance so far. In 2007-08, India also made a debut at the Hopman Cup, while Mirza and Rohan Bopanna represented the country both the times.

Sania Mirza (L) and Mahesh Bhupathi of India hold the winners trophy after they defeated Andy Ram of Israel and Nathalie Dechy of France after the mixed doubles tennis final on day 14 of the Australian Open in Melbourne on February 1, 2009. Mirza and Bhupathi won 6-3, 6-1. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

Over a decade had passed since Mirza had turned professional, and the drought of Grand Slam winning was still very active in the minds of the Indian tennis fans. In 2015, she began the year as the Women’s doubles number 5 that year, partnering Hsieh Su-wei, Bethanie Mattek Sands, and Martina Hingis, chronologically. Mirza became the world number 1 in April, when the Indo-Swiss pair won the Family Circle Cup. They became the first team to qualify for the WTA Finals that year, and Mirza ended the year at number. By then, they had won 10 WTA titles, and 2 Grand Slams, including Wimbledon Championships and the US Open, with a 22-consecutive match winning streak. The streak came to an end when they lost their 42nd match to Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova at the Qatar Open. The Indo-Swiss pair were unbeaten for 11 consecutive months. Mirza ended her partnership with Hingis in August, 2016, but paired up for the WTA Finals. Sania Mirza ended the year, yet again as the world number 1, for the second consecutive time, but lost in the semi-finals of the WTA finals, being a 2-time defending champion.

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