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Forgotten Heroes | Nora Polley - First woman to represent India at the Olympics

Forgotten Heroes | Nora Polley - First woman to represent India at the Olympics

Dr. Balraj Shukla

Published: 29 July 2020 5:57 AM GMT

It was not the tricolour back then. A red-coloured civil ensign bore the Union Jack in the top left. A complex but intricate star-like design covering the middle and bottom half on the right saw the words "Heaven's Light Our Guide." This was the design of the Indian flag back in the period of the British Raj. This civil ensign was used by people or groups who represented this flag at a global stage.

Representation is a word that ignites pride in most of us especially when it is for the nation. In a country like India, where simply participation is immensely lauded, representation would be a gallant outlook to draw. It holds even more fortitude when you are the first from your country to represent it at the biggest sporting event in the world. The athlete we are talking about is Nora Polley.

If one were to precisely acknowledge Polley's achievement, three words would suffice - woman, India, tennis. However, it would be worthwhile to appreciate the short but a crucial history that Polley has left behind, emphasising on her greatest legacy. Today would be her 126th birth anniversary. She took birth in Bengal, had two siblings all of whom were schooled at Scotland. The family later moved to Eastbourne.

It was in the mid-1910s when Polley married Sydney Trepess Polley, a member of the Indian army who climbed to the ranks of a Major in 1918. In September 1921, through the Strait of Gibraltar, Polley came back to the country she took birth in - India. There is no significant information as to how Polley was drawn towards the sport of Lawn tennis. What we do know is that India hosted its own National Olympic Games three years after Polley moved to India. The best players from these game would go on to represent India at the 1924 Summer Olympics. In the history of tennis in India, this Olympic bore the seeds for the blossoming of the sport that would follow. It was the first time India sent tennis players for the Olympics.

Polley had prepared for the Olympics by participating in a tournament in Cannes named the Juan-les-Pins tournament. She was part of the women's doubles draw, partnering Mrs Musker. The duo lost in the semis to tennis legend Suzanne Lenglen and Mrs F J Gould. Enter the 1924 Paris Olympics. Polley was a part of the women's singles and the mixed doubles draw. It was the first time a woman represented the Indian Civil Ensign in the sport of tennis at the Olympics.

Polley received a bye in the first round and later defeated a Greek player named Lena Valaoritou-Skaramaga. Polley was down a set earlier in the match but later came back from behind to win the match 1-6 6-3 6-2. But her run in the singles draw fell short as she managed to win only three games in her third-round encounter against Lili Alvarez. But her run was even shorter in mixed doubles wherein she partnered Sydney Jacob. In the first round, they received a bye but in the second round, they lost in three sets to the pair of Edward McCrea and Mabel Hilda Wallis.

Polley's professional career ended with her participation in a few tournaments in England. These events were held at Bexhill, Tunbridge Wells, Weymouth, Torbay and South England Championships. How she fared at these tournaments is lost in history. Archives suggest that October 1924 was her last playing tennis at a professional level.

Polley breathed her last in 1988 at Leominster, Herefordshire. Indian women's tennis still hunts for an Olympic medal. Polley laid the foundations for women's tennis to blossom in the Olympics. The qualifications to qualify for the singles event in 2021 Tokyo Olympics is that a player's rank should be within the Top 56 in the world with four players from each country automatically qualifying. We still need to make some valiant strides in the singles category. In the doubles category, though Sania Mirza can easily qualify. It is still not confirmed whom might she partner with. But as far as the immediate Olympics are concerned, the seed that Polley sowed may hopefully see its fruit in 2021.

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