The rich timeline of Indian tennis dates all the way back to the 1880s. It was because of the colonial rule of the Britishers that tennis found a new home in the Indian subcontinent.
By the second decade of the 20th century, India attracted many international tennis players. This was primarily because of the trio of tournaments that were held in the era of undivided India: Punjab Lawn Tennis Championships held in Lahore, Bengal Lawn Tennis Championships at Calcutta and the All India Tennis Championships at Allahabad. The Indian men were making significant strides in the tennis world.
The Davis Cup side of the 1920s consisted of players like M.Sleemm, Fayzee brothers, Cotah Ramaswamy and Krishna Prasad. European teams like France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Greece and Romania fell prey to this Indian squad. It was in 1936 when Ghaus Mohammad became the first ever Indian to reach the quarterfinals in the singles category at Wimbledon. The men steadily made progress at the international scenario with Ramanathan Krishnan and the Amritraj brothers being the flag bearers of Indian men’s tennis in the future.
Women, on the other hand, didn’t back down. During the 1920s the first lot of Indian female tennis players ushered in. EM Sandinson became the first Indian-born lady to win a singles title at the Bengal Lawn Tennis Championships in 1925. Since the tournament was a National event held during the British Raj, Sandinson’s opponents in the competition were mainly British women. Following her footsteps was her younger sibling Jenny Sandinson. She won the more competitive All India Tennis Championships at Allahabad in 1927. Two years later, Jenny became the first Indian lady to enter the main draw of Wimbledon. She did not progress beyond the first round.
A string of female national champions got recognition soon after. Khama Row and Raj Kumari Amrit Dixit are known to be the first Indian tennis players from orthodox families. They too won many of the national tennis championships.
During the second world war, Jenny Sandinson topped the national rankings from 1930 to 1935. Khama Row’s daughter, Leela Row also won multiple national accolades. PG Dinshaw, MH Dinshaw and Meher Dubash were three Parsi women who conquered the Sind Lawn Tennis Championships and the Northwest Indian Championships of Karachi in the mid-1930s.
Indians had quite a talented bunch of women who hardwired themselves on the “home” cow dung courts. None of them had made an impact on the international scenario. The first group of female tennis players from independent India saw a few names getting the limelight: Khanum Haji, Urmila Thapar, Laura Woodbridge, Promilla Khanna and Rita Davar.
Khanum Haji became the first ever winner of the Grass Court National Championship instituted by the All India Tennis Association (AITA). Finally, it was Rita Davar who broke the ice and became the first Indian woman to get global recognition five years after Independence.
The era of Rita Davar
The Wimbledon draw of 1952 for the ladies’ junior singles category saw 12 girls in the main draw. 17-years old Rita Davar got a bye in the first round and played her first match as a quarter-finalist. She had never won a national championship before and now saw herself competing on the rich lawns of Wimbledon.
Being the lone representative from her country, Davar made a strong start, dropping only three games in the round of eight. She backed this win with another straight sets victory over French opponent Annie Soisbault to seal a berth in the finals. In the finals, Davar began strongly, taking the first set 7-5. Davar’s opponent, Fanny ten Bosch retaliated in the second set to win it 6-1. Forcing a decider, the Dutch had to save a few match points to win with a final scoreline that read 5-7 6-1 7-5.
Rita Davar became the first ever Indian tennis player (male or female) to make it to the finals of a grand slam in the singles category.
She remains the only Indian to achieve this feat. The next four years saw Davar at her prime. She became the No.1 Indian female tennis player for 1953 and 1954. Davar won the Indian Nationals and the All India Hard Court Championships in 1953 & 1954. A winner of the 1953 North India Championships, Davar won the southern counterpart of the tournament two years later.
A year after finishing as the runner-up in the girls’ singles at Wimbledon, Davar returned to SW19 and competed in the same category. That year, Davar was ousted in the first round in three sets. In 1954, she became eligible to enter the seniors’ singles category. She made it through the qualifying draw but lost in her opening match, winning only one game. Davar lost in the first round yet again in 1955, but in the mixed doubles category, she partnered Ramanathan Krishnan to reach the third round. The same year, the prestigious Tennis Club Baden-Baden instilled a new clubhouse in their premises. Alongside, they introduced a new tournament called the “Internationals.” Rita Davar became an affiliate of this reputed club. International players like Fausto Gardini, Roberto Valerio and Orlando Sirola were a part of this club.
The 1956 edition of Wimbledon is said to be the final tournament of Rita Davar’s career. She lost in the first round of the qualifying draw, and her whereabouts on the tennis court was no longer known. Davar was last reported to be living in Germany in 2001.
As far as India’s governing tennis bodies are concerned, it is saddening to cognise that the traces of India’s first heroine of tennis on the global stage vanished in thin air. The WTA today sees women enjoy an outfit which makes it a lot easier for women to run, dash and slide on any turf. However, back then in the 1950s, women had to deal with clothing constraints which largely restricted their skills. They probably never showcased their abilities to their full potential owing to their outfit. Davar was one such lady who broke barriers to putting India’s name at a higher echelon by reaching the slam finals of the most celebrated tennis tournament in the history of the game.
“…about a dozen women players took part in the National championship then and about six in the South India championship. “To make up for the draw, the entries will be filled with dummy names like `Bat, ball, volley and smash.’ The first girl to break the tradition was a Punjabi girl from Calcutta, Rita Davar. She reached the junior final at Wimbledon in 1952 and was on match point. I was a witness to that. Later she married a German, and I have not heard about her since.”
— Ramanathan Krishnan