The state of tennis in India is observing a paradigm shift. It is a known fact that world tennis, is still dominated by the big three, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Indian tennis players by the virtue of some good training facilities, nutrition and coaches are making a name themselves.
The game of tennis in India from the mid 90’s developed a considerable following. This can be credited to the success of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. The two stalwarts started the revolution of winning international tournaments. And since then, tennis in India has always grown as the most preferred sport for youngsters.
History of Tennis in India
The British regime is credited for the inception of tennis in India in 1880s. Gradually, the game developed interest and led to the formation of ‘All India Tennis Association’ (AITA). It eventually became the top level body governing of tennis in India. Although AITA organized numerous National and International level tournaments, it was not until mid-1990’s that tennis gained admiration and fame in India.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s Indian tennis legends like the Krishnan father son duo, the Amritraj brothers, and Jaidip Mukerjea dominated the game. They proved to be a game changer during the time. Continuing their legacy are our modern day tennis heroes like Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. Not to forget Sania Mirza, Somdev Devvarman, Rohan Bopanna and Yuki Bhambri. With such a class of talent and promising players, the future of tennis in India seems bright.
Early Years of Tennis in India
Tennis that we play in present form was conceived in England in the 1870s. During the 1880s, the British Army and Civilian Officers brought the game to India. Thereafter, regular tournaments like ‘Punjab Lawn tennis Championship’ at Lahore (now in Pakistan) (1885); ‘Bengal Lawn Tennis Championship’ at Calcutta (1887) and the All India Tennis Championships at Allahabad in (1910) were organised.
Initially, Britishers like TD Berrington and LC Ogbourne won these championships. But, gradually Indians started picking up the game. Mohammed Saleem of Lahore won the Punjab Championship in 1915, and from 1919 to 1926. In 1917 NS Iyer won the Bengal Championship. In 1919 Mr. Nagu lifted the prestigious singles crown at the All India Tennis Championship. Henceforth the Indian domination started for the game with greater distinction.
Tennis in India – Formation of All India Lawn Tennis Association (AILTA)
In March 1920, at Lahore, the All India Lawn Tennis Association (AILTA) came into existence. At the members meet the constitution and by-laws were framed. These were on the lines of the constitution of Lawn Tennis Association of Britain.
In November 1920, the first AGM of AILTA was held at the Town Hall at Delhi. A British member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) Samuel Perry O’Donnell was elected as the first president. It was during this meeting that the annual ‘All India National Championships’ at Allahabad were announced to participate in Davis Cup competition.
On their first outing, the Indian team consisting of SM Jacob, Mohd Saleem, LS Deane and AA Fayzee caused a major upset. They defeated a strong French team to reach the semi-finals.
Now that AITA was at the helm of affairs, different Provinces formed Provincial Associations. These are now known as State Associations and were affiliated to parent organisation. An Inter Provincial Tournament was organised with effect from 1922. The yearly competition continued till the eve of Second World War (1939).
Tennis in India – Davis Cup
In Davis Cup ties, from 1921 to 1929, India beat some already established teams from France, Romania, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Greece. Top Indians M. Sleem, Fayzee brothers AH Fayzee and AA Fayzee, Cotah Ramaswamy and Krishna Prasad were instrumental. They beat a large number of ranked European players and teams and brought glory to the country.
Tennis in India – Tournaments
Some of the established names in Indian tennis during the British era were SM Jacob, Mohd Saleem, LS Deane and AA Fayzee. They went on to represent India at the prestigious Davis Cup, for the first time, in 1921.
The maiden Inter Provincial Tournament was held in 1922, with Punjab Lawn Tennis Association led by Mohd Saleem. The tennis competition was held regularly held in India, until the Second World War broke out in 1939. In tournaments that were held during the period before the World War, the promising players of India emerged victorious. They competed with stiff foreign competitors belonging to the strong nations.
Things went smooth for Tennis in India after the end of the Second World War. AILTA decided to organize Grass Court and Hard Court Tournaments in India. The Hard court tournaments were open to foreign players as well.
In 1946, the first ever, Grass Court National Championship was held at Calcutta. Sumant Misra grabbed the maiden title by defeating Manmohan Lal. From then on, a fresh new breed of promising Indian players, including S. Misra Dilip Bose and the young Ramanathan Krishnan was introduced to the game. Both of them were consistent winners until 1955.
Others who dominated the championship included Premjit Lal, Vijay Amritraj and Jaidip Mukerjea.
Tennis in India – The Golden Period
The mid 1950s was the turning point for tennis in India and Indian tennis players. Legendary tennis player, Ramanathan Krishnan bagged the Junior Wimbledon Champion title in the 1950s. He became the first Asian to do so.
Ramanathan Krishnan, Jaidip Mukherjee and Premjit Lal were the dominant Indian players in India during the 1960s. In 1962, Ramanathan Krishnan secured the fourth position at Wimbledon. The Indian tennis players also performed well in other prestigious tournaments including the Davis Cup and the Zonal Championships.
Soon after, Premjit Lala and Jaidip Mukerjea won the National Doubles and Asian Doubles Championships, an astonishing four times each.
Stylish Vijay Amritraj stood out from the crowd. He strengthened the Indian tennis in the 1970s. With the exceptional performances of Amritraj, Shashi Menon, Jasjit Singh and Anand Amritraj, India reached the Tennis World Cup Finals in 1974. However, due to political issues and Apartheid, India did not play South Africa in the Finals.
Vijay Amritraj made it to the Grand Slam tournaments and performed reasonably well. However, he never won a major Grand Slam. He did qualify for the quarterfinals of the US Open in 1973 and also in 1981. Vijay, made it to the Wimbledon in 1973 and 1974. Vijay Amritraj was then succeeded by Ramesh Krishnan, son of Ramanathan Krishnan, who kept India’s flag flying high.
Tennis in India – The Late 1990s
Post the Krishnan era, a couple of young Indian players started to get international recognition. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi had entered the game. Paes, the Junior Wimbledon and US Open Champion, pulled off some outstanding victories for India and performed well in the Davis Cup as well. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Leander Paes created history by winning the singles Bronze medal for India. He was also instrumental in making India qualify for prestigious tournaments like the Grand Slam and Davis Cup.
Mahesh Bhupathi was the first Grand Slam winner for India. However, after partnering with Paes, they went on a winning rampage. The duo entered all the four Grand Slam Doubles Finals in 1999. They made every Indian proud by winning Wimbledon and US Open.
Before splitting, Paes and Bhupathi remained the No.1 doubles pair position for a long time.
Present Day Scenario of Tennis in India
The golden era of the 50s and 60s and the 90s behind us now, tennis in India holds bright future. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi after splitting did win Grand Slams and international tournaments with different tennis players. They have heavily contributed to the Indian tennis at the individual levels.
The entry of Sania Mirza has breathed in fresh air to tennis in India. The tennis queen of India has managed to deliver commendable performances, both at the national and international level. Saina has become the major inspiration to the young sporting enthusiasts of our country.
On the other hand Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj are among the others to pick up the gauntlet. They also enhanced the stature of Indian tennis at the international level.
At present Ramkumar Ramanathan, Yuki Bhambri, Prarthana Thombare and Karman Kaur Thandi look bright prospects. They haven’t won any big international tournaments for India. But hopes are high from this young bunch of men and women, to once again bring back the golden days for Tennis in India.