“Nirmal Shekhar in Conversation with Ramanathan Krishnan at the Hyatt, Mount Road at 6.30pm”
After braving a rather severe cold from the past two days and a visit to the ENT center, this was something I had promised myself of not missing.
With some amount of the sniffles remaining, I set out along with mom to the star hotel. After high tea that involved “side dishes” such as a full-blown chaat menu, onion uthappam accompanied by 6 different varieties of chutney, medu vadai, chocolate cake and even a tiramisu dessert (all items on the house as part of a celebratory week-long fest in the city) which I must say played a pivotal role in attracting a minor chunk of the audience, the spotlight turned to the legend himself: a man who unabashedly describes himself as a product of competition, was brought up on strict diet of discipline and even turned down an offer of a $15,000 in 1959 to turn professional.
There are just somethings in life that Wikipedia entries may never end up replicating, like a good old face to face conversation of memories. I, for one, am a total sucker for such things; especially the ones coming directly from remarkable old timers.
Ramanathan Krishnan was and probably still is a household name for every kid brought up in Chennai, at least to the ones who thronged the tennis courts. But he was also the quintessential Indian sportsman who despite ruling the roost at home, achieved little success in his pursuits for individual silverware abroad. A 1954 boys singles title at Wimbledon was to be the only happy scoop as far as foreign tours were concerned; a feat that his son would go on to emulate 20 years later. But as far as stats and sport trivia go, one can always look it up online anytime. The evening was more about a personal sojourn, how tennis attained its present status in Madras down the years, and how the city remains a prime hub for talent in the sport.
The Early Days
It is fitting to give the tag of “The first family of tennis” in India to the Krishnans. He proudly claims that they are composed of no less than four generations of accomplished tennis players starting from his father, T K Ramanathan who taught himself to play the game by reading Bill Tilden’s books. “Big Bill” as he was known in the Roaring Twenties was supposed to be the last word when it came to the sport of tennis. TKR, until then was a lad who hailed from small town Tenkasi in the deep south, acquainted with the subjects of accountancy and stenography. Initiated into marriage at the age of 17 to a girl 5 years his junior, he sought greener pastures, as was the norm, in the city of Madras. Stanley Medical College enrolled him for Rs.50 a month. He would cycle everyday to work from his residential house in Thambu Chetty Street, often catching glimpses of Englishmen playing the sport in their private clubs. The colonial masters could not be expected to impart skills to the native man. So TKR resorted to reading his way into it. By 1939, when conditions were more relaxed locally, he would achieve a career high rating becoming the third best player in the country. The prestige of the Davis Cup was to sadly elude him, due to the War. He found a larger calling in Delhi as a civil servant, where he would enroll his son Krishnan for primary schooling. TKR was determined to make sure the boy would achieve what he could not.
Return to Madras
The accelerated chapter of independence on August 15, 1947 and the consequent bloodshed from the wounds of partition forced the Krishnan family to return to their more peaceful southern province. A surprising fact during that era was the status tennis enjoyed not only in the cities, but also in the rustic setting of the rural areas. The standards of the game according to Ramanthan Krishnan, were uniformly good for those times.
Back in his native Tenkasi, Krishnan recounts joyously the motorcycle trips along with his father to the town of Kovilpatti for honing his skills on the clay courts. A certain Shanmuganatha Mudaliar from Tirunelveli with a vicious forehand chop frequently provided good training to the youngster and Krishnan still acknowledges him as being an early influence apart from his father. But better exposure needed better geography and what place better than Madras to beckon him to it. A German coach improved Krishnan’s grip, game and particularly his backhand returns.
Loyola College in Nungambakkam hosted a tournament known as the Stanley Cup(not to be confused with the ice hockey club trophy of the NHL) in the 50s only for college students. “I was still a school going boy then. My father pestered the organisers to let me participate somehow. In the end, they thought what the harm was in letting only one schoolboy in the draw and considered it. I went on to win the cup”, Krishnan states.This was to be only the beginning of his domination in the junior national circuit. He remembers another incident where he continued to torment senior players on the grounds of the Andhra Maha Sabha which stood adjacent to the Ripon Building. The staff of the nearby buildings would gather on their terraces and balconies just to watch him play, even during working hours.
T K Ramnathan had even managed to spruce up a family tennis court in their household backyard and devoted to hours of training the young Krishnan. Krishnan would copy this gesture later by creating a facility on Oliver road for his son, Ramesh.
When asked about other sorts of pioneers in Madras, Krishnan vividly remembers maamis in their nine yard sarees fashionably trying to mix in with their European counterparts through recreation clubs for ladies. A more detailed look into that fascinating story is available here. The quaint picture below would only hasten you to click on the link hopefully!
Ostensibly these women folk were a tad shy to move around and run about lest they trip and fall clumsily. But it was a start alright.
Krishnan starts naming his contemporaries: Sheshadri (who was seated in the front row and helped Krishnan affirm some memories), Vishnu Mohan and Vijayappa Rao among others. Competitiveness was a common thread that connected these men and undeniably, Krishnan emerged in the top slot.
When asked about his most abiding memories during high school days, Krishnan responds “I used to represent Ramakrishna High School. I was given special treatment of every type including tuition and other privileges uncommon to my classmates at school. When I was nearing the end of high school during a Stanley Cup tournament at Loyola, a crowd of nearly a thousand had formed by the time I reached the final. They even climbed up the trees to witness the game. When I won it again, the Reverend Father of the institution came up to me personally and whispered something in my ear. It immediately became a subject of media attention and speculation.” Krishnan holds the crowd in suspense for a second before unfurling his next sentence: “The Rev. Father had reserved a seat for me in Loyola college after school.”
Krishnan doesn’t think hard when asked about his first overseas trip. “1952”, pat comes the resounding reply “All trips to London and Australia would involve going via Colombo. Our Indian contingent met two Muslim tennis players from Ceylon during that voyage. They had heard about me and insisted on my staying in Colombo for an exhibition match before proceeding to England. The gesture was so genuine back then and tennis truly brought people together. Sometimes rules would be so amateurish even. For instance, just to ensure the best footfall, the organisers would reshuffle the players in the semi-final round so that the best two made it to the grand finale.”
Wimbledon was a different story altogether. Once in London, Krishnan had realised the conditions were nothing like what he had imagined it to be. He found it hard adjusting to the cold, windy arena and the grass was a difficult customer to handle. Facing the Aussie giant Frank Sedgman, Krishnan admits that all he could focus was on his opponent’s enchanting face rather than his speedy foot movement. Furthermore, he had switched his wooden racket with someone else’s by mistake in the changing room. He never revealed this to his father who was accompanying him at that time. “I was too scared to tell him. It was simply not possible. He would have lost faith in me”, Krishnan says.
Krishnan also managed to make a smooth transition from a junior player to the senior level. “Two advantages”, he starts explaining. “In any one tournament, even if I was underage compared to the rest of the players I would participate in all combinations: boy’s singles and doubles, and men’s single and doubles. That’s something today’s parents would never let their wards try out. They should make juniors play senior players frequently so that they get used to competition early. Secondly, only two players from each country would be permitted into a grand slam like Wimbledon. Since I used to be consistently ranked in the top two places in India I was a natural choice. Things are different now. Players have to get into specific ATP rankings to play tournaments. Professionals were frowned upon by the public before the Open Era ensuring amateurs always had the upper hand.”
It was also a well-known fact that Krishnan had turned his back on a lot of offers to turn professional. He deconstructs this puzzling decision: ” The great Jack Kramer, who was a proponent of the modern format which allowed amateurs and professionals to play together, came to me with an offer in 1959 — $15000 for three years. That was a huge amount. But my father and I had come to a spontaneous decision. We refused it. If you turned pro, then you wouldn’t be eligible to participate in the Davis Cup. That was a greater source of pride for us. It meant playing for the country. I had everything else I needed and I have absolutely no regrets about throwing away the offer.” Krishnan adds “We were looked upon as special citizens. During a Davis Cup semi-final match in Calcutta, a barber offered me a free haircut. A shopkeeper refused to take money for some lemonade. That was the sort of status we enjoyed.”
Krishnan also made formed close friendships with many other giants of the time including Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. He reveals some fascinating information about Emerson in particular: “Roy Emerson was a good singer. And an extremely good yodeler, you know, like the way Kishore Kumar used to do it. I was a music buff and used to carry my records of M.S. Subbulakshmi, Madurai Mani Iyer, Kishore da and Rafi wherever I went. Roy joined in to listen to them and you wouldn’t believe it – he could sing a line from every song he heard. There he was suddenly yodeling away M.S ‘ rendition of Kaatrinile Varum Geetham. I always believed if some Bhagavathar gave him ample training in Madras we could get him to sing a Margazhi Masam Kutcheri. Such camaraderie between players does not seem to exist any more.”
Role of Media in his career
Ramanathan Krishnan admits the specific role of print media in giving him good publicity during his heyday, but believes the introduction of television did more for the sport in general. “Unbelievable … the rate at which TV spreads information these days. You can know anything that happens in any corner of the world”, he admits “but it also has a significant setback. People now enjoy watching in the comfort of their homes rather than going and seeing the match live in the stadium. It’s just not the same.”
We learn of yet another mode of advertising through Krishnan, this time in Third World style. He refers to a technique called Bullock Cart advertising which spread word in the bovine settings like Tirunelveli during his matches there. It would roughly consist of a two-way communication between the messenger atop the cart and the listeners spread around him:
“Yellarum Kelunga, inniku Tennis potti irukku.” (Listen up everyone, there’s a tennis match today)
“Yaaru pa valyadraanga?” (Who’s playing?)
“Namma Krishnan valayadraaru” (Our Krishnan is playing)
“Yaaru pa jeypaanga?” (Who will win?)
“Theriyadhu vandhu paarunga. Ticket vilai moonu rooba, anju rooba, pathu rooba” (Don’t know, come and watch. Tickets available for Rs.3, Rs.5 and Rs.10)
Game, Set and Match
Krishnan’s wife Lalitha is called upon to give further insight to his private life. She initially starts by saying that when Krishnan was about 22 years old both their families were keen on their alliance. The only surprising element was Lalitha’s grandmother who was taken aback. She had been reeling under the impression that professional tennis was a jobless pursuit and wanted only a clerk or a civil servant for her granddaughter.
Krishnan acknowledges Lalitha’s critical homemaking skills and goes on to say that she was instrumental in designing the entire family court in the backyard. Krishnan asked whether his neighbour was impressed by his wife’s beautiful layout of the court. The neighbour had replied “Definitely, its beautiful. But I can’t help notice that one half of the court is in my backyard as well.” The crowd breaks into laughter at this point.
The audience are given a chance to interact with the legend thereafter. Veteran actor Mohan V Raman volunteers to hand over the mike to enthusiastic question-throwers. No hand seems to go up, at which point Yours Truly decides to break the ice and go for it. “The young man there!”, someone points out. I get the mic and duly ask what I had thought to be a most pertinent doubt: “How did you manage to adjust to the food during your overseas travels to England and Australia. Did you carry along your wife to look after your diet?”
Of course, Krishnan was a Brahmin and a vegetarian but he replied that he had to intake egg and meat often to improve fitness and stamina. He did not relish it, so he stuck to the Sambhar rice and curd rice. Yes, the power of curd rice prevails!
The second and last of the questions comes up from another member behind: “What was your greatest prize money earned through a tournament?”
Ramanathan Krishnan dutifully answers “A £60 voucher. And I couldn’t even en-cash it!”