"I need tennis to come up to a high level in India" — desires Ramanathan Krishnan
A living legend, the Madras Magician, Ramanathan Krishnan, a former World No. 3, reflects on his heydays and the current scenario of Indian tennis.
In the hearts and minds of the most avid Indian tennis follower, the name Ramanathan Krishnan is held with high regards. The "Eastern Magic" as he was nicknamed in his days, is arguably the greatest tennis player that India has ever produced. The Bridge got in touch with the Indian Maestro of Tennis, who reminisces about his days on the circuit and gives an outlook on the way Indian tennis has changed over the years.
The 2021 Rogers Cup is in full swing. It is the 140th edition of the event on the ATP Tour and the 53rd in the Open Era. The Masters event has been one of the most elusive hard court events globally and the first edition of it in the Open Era was won by Ramanathan Krishnan. Even at the tail of his career, Krishnan's performance was nothing short of emphatic. He did not drop a single set (back then played as best of five sets) and won 14 bakery sets (6-0 or 6-1) in the entire event.
Q: Please tell us all about your last International tournament victory that came at the 1968 Canadian Open.
A: I had given up playing serious tennis at the end of 1967. The next year tennis was declared Open. So I changed my mind and decided to play Wimbledon and a few other tournaments that year. The Canadian Open was my last tournament and I won the final against Torben Ulrich of Denmark.
Q: And Tom David?
A: How do you know about him?
Q: You have mentioned about him in your book, A Touch of Tennis.
A: Is that so? Ok, so in Toronto I met Tom David. He was working in the Canadian government and I learnt that we studied in the same college in Madras. He was very enthusiastic about my tennis and even watched me practice. When we met after a long time, he motivated me to win the Canadian Open that year (1968). It was the first edition of the tournament in the Open Era.
Q: You are dubbed as the King of Indian Tennis because clearly there are records suggestive of that. What according to you was your biggest strength on-court back then that made you such a competitive force globally?
A: I had good anticipation and I volleyed and I had a good smash and there was depth in my groundstrokes. I was an all-rounder (chuckles).
Mellow as he may sound, Krishnan was a dominant force on the circuit in the late 50s and the early 60s. The 1959 Wimbledon singles' champion, Alex Olmedo, said in his victory speech, "I knew if I could get past Krish, I will win the tournament." Olmedo and Krishnan played a tightly fought match in the third round, but the American eventually prevailed in four sets.
Q: What was it that you had, that no Indian player has had as much success in singles since?
A: I reached International level because of dedication, hard work and a lot of competition all over the world. I was a product of competitive play. I played all the champions back then in various countries and my game developed that way. My father, T.K. Ramanathan was a coach. He had a good analytical mind that helped me a lot. Living in Madras, a quiet place, I had no distractions at all. I could concentrate and train for tennis completely. In cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, there are much more distractions. So I feel that was a major reason why I made it more than the others. There is much more depth in world tennis today. It is difficult to reach high levels nowadays. You need trainers, coaches and money power. Lot of players from India don't have that (money). Tennis is an expensive sport. Also, in all games, you must have a single-minded approach.
Q: Are you referring to the monk-mindedness concept that your father wanted you to have?
A: Yes. Monk-mindedness applies to all sports irrespective of the generation. When Messi is on the football ground, he is not thinking about his endorsements. He is looking at the ball all the time. Mental grit and ambition are essential. Our tennis players lack confidence. When they see the depth of other players they get worried. So they think they can't make it.
Q: So it's a mental thing according to you?
A: Yes definitely. Somebody once asked Rod Laver, how did he win Wimbledon? He said "I always thought I would win Wimbledon, so I won Wimbledon." So it's your thinking, your attitude, your confidence. Our players get both physically and mentally tired.
Krishnan reached a career high ranking of World No.3 in 1960. No Indian has since entered the Top 10 rankings in the singles category. The closest was Vijay Amritraj, who got to No.18 in 1980.
Q: The fact that you were a World No.3 and had not won any slam (particularly Wimbledon) got to your mind (as you have mentioned in your book). You even had a mental let-down because of it. Now this was the 60s. Sixty years later, we are seeing players like Naomi Osaka who are standing up for mental health. How much importance was mental health given back then and how did you find your way out of it ?
A: Things have changed a lot and people have learnt a lot. In my time, we never talked or worried about mental health. We just wanted to go, fight and win. Today professional tennis includes playing for livelihood and also glamour and professionalism. Also, back then we didn't play all the time. We had time to relax. I had defeated many champions in many tournaments back then. But at Wimbledon I had to beat all of them in two weeks. You had to place yourself with proper strategy. I missed that.
Q: And your record against Neale Fraser can come into the picture now. You won 5 against him, but the 2 you lost...
A: (laughs) Yes exactly. The important ones (Davis Cup and Wimbledon). He beat me there.
Neale Fraser, a former World No.1, in both singles and doubles, won the Wimbledon in 1960, was twice a US Open champion, reached the finals of the Australian Open thrice and had sixteen doubles (including mixed doubles) titles to his name.
Q: How would you analyze the functioning of the AITA today?
A: It is static. It is not dynamic. We need more active planning. There is less tournament playing. We can't make good players like this.
Q: Sir, you faced (and even won) against legends like Laver, Emerson, Fraser, Pietrangeli, Koch, Olmedo, etc. In such a field, you were placed as the World No.3 in the singles category. Based on the current scenario, how long according to you will it take for an Indian to rise to such heights on the ATP Tour?
A: You know if somebody is to do well 10 years later, he must be playing now. It takes 5 years to become a good tennis player, and another 5 years to become a champion. The AITA needs to do that now, hunt for new blood. Things look a little bad, but let us hope for the best. I need tennis, the sport I love the most, to come up to that high level in India.
Ramanathan Krishnan was also known as "pure oriental charm." He was known for his angled volleys, drop shots and graceful shot making. I did not miss the chance to ask him how his ideal player would look like.
Q: Your ideal player:
A: Forehand: Pancho Segura, Bjorn Borg
Backhand: Ken Rosewall, Roger Federer
Service: Pancho Gonzalez, Roger Federer
Return: Novak Djokovic
Slice: Ken Rosewall
Drop shot: Manuel Santana
Volley: Rod Laver
Q: Which players from both the men's and women's game did you enjoy seeing the most?
A: Men: Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Women: Steffi Graf and Serena Williams.
Q: As a tennis coach and mentor you have seen budding players up close. How would you analyze the mind-set of an Indian tennis student today compared to the one that you had back in your days?
A: I wasn't a full-time coach. But based on what I see now, there is a big drop in the standards of the young ones coming up. We have to look forward to new blood from various places. I don't see the present players going forward in the long run.
Q: How has life been for Ramanathan Krishnan in the 21st century?
A: I am a happy and contented man. I think of the happy tennis playing days. I have a peaceful mind, good health, and loving children and grandchildren.
Q: How are you connected with tennis now?
A: Now I watch tennis sometimes on television. I used to watch tennis regularly until Ramesh was playing. After that I see some important matches now and then. I think you are more connected to tennis than me. Your questions say that.
Ramanathan Krishnan had won the Wimbledon Juniors' titles in 1954, had over 50 singles tour level titles to his name and was a recipient of the prestigious Arjuna Award, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan. But his run to the semis at the 1960 and 1961 Wimbledon remain the highlights of his playing career. It was a feat that a billion Indians now wait for it to be replicated once again in their lifetime.