With Jannik Sinner’s historic victory on Sunday making him the first Italian to ever lift the Australian Open’s Men’s Singles trophy, you might be wondering when, or if, an Indian might do the same.
But one need only look back in time to see just how close we’ve been to tennis greatness. Enter Ramanathan Krishnan, the father of Indian tennis, whose trailblazing feats in the singles draw are yet to be surpassed by any Indian player.
His peers described him as graceful, cool, composed, a light touch. Far from the powerful groundstrokes and serves of today’s players, Krishnan’s weapons were his serve and volley, demonstrating deft control and agility. He didn’t so much thump the ball as gently guide it.
Born in 1937, Krishnan began his journey in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, training under his father and veteran player, T. K Ramanathan. Excluded from the Madras tennis clubs due to his age, a young Krishnan is said to have practiced on cow dung plastered courts in rural Tamil Nadu.
In 1950, he competed in the prestigious Loyola College’s Bertram tournaments, dubbed ‘the Wimbledon of Madras’. Though an event exclusively for college-aged boys, the prodigious Krishnan was granted special admission, becoming the first schoolboy to compete at the event.
At just 13 years of age, he not only took home the tournament’s first prize, but did so without dropping a set.
These antics garnered national recognition, and he became the junior national title holder in 1953. This meant he qualified for junior Wimbledon; he reached the finals that year, losing to Billy Knight.
Undeterred, he returned in 1954. Defeating Australian Ashley Cooper, Ramanathan Krishnan became the first Asian to lift the Boys’ Singles trophy at Wimbledon.
At this point, Krishnan was old enough to make his way into the main draw and compete on the ILTF world circuit, where he would continue to turn heads. In 1954, he delivered a four-set upset over No.5 seed Jaroslav Drobny in the first round of men’s singles at Wimbledon. He would reach the third round of the main draw that year, eventually bowing out to Australian Malcolm Anderson.
The peak of his career came in 1960, when he reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon, and achieved his career best position as No. 7 seed. Krishnan had a fairytale run that year, even beating Roland Garros winner Andres Gimeno, until it came to an end at the hands of Aussie Neale Fraser, who went on to win the tournament. Krishnan experienced a similar fate in the 1961 Wimbledon, losing in straight sets at the semifinals again to Rod Laver.
Sadly, he never reached such zeniths at Wimbledon after 1961, but he is to this day still the first, and only Indian to reach a singles Grand Slam semi-final. Reflecting on these losses in an interview in 1970, Krishnan would ruefully note by then ‘the game had become very fast’ and ‘dependant on a good service’, qualities which he couldn’t match.
Despite his limited success with Grand Slams, Krishnan regularly went toe-to-toe with tennis greats, marking numerous victories against Australians Rod Laver and Neale Fraser. In 1962 he was even seeded fourth in the world, just behind them.
Ramanathan Krishnan was a key member of India’s Davis Cup squad, turning his singles success into valuable guidance for his fellow countrymen Premjit Lal and Jaideep Mukerjea. Playing alongside Mukerjea, they claimed the 1966 doubles rubber against Aussie No.1 duo John Newcombe and John Roche in Melbourne, even turning the home crowd in their favour!
Equally, Krishnan found satisfaction in stepping back from the court and captaining his team to victory; ‘I am not fighting here for individual honours – the country comes first’, he’d say.
Krishnan retired from the circuit in 1975, receiving a Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, and Arjuna award.
His son, Ramesh Krishnan has followed in his father’s footsteps, also clinching the Wimbledon boys title, and becoming a leading player in the 1980s. These days, they run a coaching centre together, the Krishnan Tennis Academy in Kottivakkam.
Few have come close to the Grand Slam success of Krishnan in the singles draw; Vijay Amritraj made it to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1973 and 1981, and his son Ramesh Krishnan in 1986.
Recently, Rohan Bopanna’s Australian Open Doubles title and Sumit Nagal’s singles win against 27th seed Alexander Bublik have put wind in the sails of Indian tennis fans; surely, it’s only a matter of time before we get our next Ramanathan Krishnan on the world’s courts?