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Vol. XXIX No. 9, August 16-31, 2019

Yesteryear’s Chennai’s Champion of Women’s Tennis

by V.K. Parthasarathy

Page 12

Lakshmi Mahadevan is prominent among the women champions who adorned the tennis scene of Madras in the 1950s to the 1970s. She turns 80 this August.

Persuaded by her good friend Shilu Ranganathan, she started playing tennis at the new courts of Gandhi Nagar Ladies Club in 1954 at the age of 15. She soon realised she had found her true calling. Regular practice sessions ensued in this club and later in Presidency College, which she joined in 1956. In her own words: “The first tennis tournament I played was in Gandhi Nagar Ladies Club in 1956 and I was runner-up in the Ladies Singles. I was thrilled when I received a small cup from the then CM of Madras, Kamaraj Nadar. I still have and treasure that trophy.”

Her tennis took an upswing in 1957, when she became a trainee of coach extraordinaire T.K. Ramanathan, father of the legendary R. Krishnan. He helped her streamline and refine her game, without disturbing her natural style. By 1959, she had blossomed into a fine player with a flair for competition. Her game was built around a strong forehand and she was ready to take on the best in Madras. As a member of the Madras University team, she played a key role in bringing home the All-India Inter-University trophy in 1959. The following year, she won her first Open title in the Madras State Championships held at the Gymkhana Club, defeating the holding champion Dr Indira Sambasivam. She thus became the No.1 of Madras, and her sustained dominance in city tournaments kept her at the top for the next several years.

Seeking more challenging competition and encouraged by her well-wishers, notably (late) M.V.G. Appa Rao, Lakshmi decided to spread her wings. She played in the Ceylon Nationals in 1963 and was runner-up, losing to the Ceylon No.1 Ranjini Jeyasurya. Her moment of glory arrived when she participated in the Asian championships on grass courts in Calcutta in January 1964. Unseeded and unknown, she was far from being the favourite. She ended up causing one of the biggest upsets in Indian Women’s tennis by winning the Ladies Singles title, beating the top seed Mrs. Mills of England in straight sets and becoming the first Indian to win the Ladies title in the Asian Championships. She continued her winning streak at the Ceylon Nationals in Colombo, All-India Hard Court in Hyderabad, Western India Championships, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu State Championships, amongst others.
As a team player, she was a member of the Tamil Nadu State team which reached the finals of the 1964 Inter-State Championships in Pune, ultimately losing to Maharashtra. Her overall performance fetched her top-ranking status in India in 1964. The following year, she lost in the finals of the Asian Championships to Nirupama Mankad of Maharashtra, and also in the semi-finals of the Nationals. Yet she was ranked No.2 in the country thanks to her impressive performance in other tournaments, especially on hard courts.

Lakshmi then took an 8-year break for medical reasons but made a comeback in 1975, when she captained the Tamil Nadu women’s team in the Inter-State Championships in Guwahati. They lost in the finals.

At the Guwahati airport, she had a chance meeting with the well-known journalist and editor of the popular magazine The Illustrated Weekly of India, Kushwant Singh. He chatted with her for some time, expressing his desire to challenge her to a friendly singles match in his club in New Delhi when she next went there. He gave her his phone number and address. As it happened, she found herself in Delhi shortly after the incident and duly called him. He fixed the game at the Delhi Gymkhana Club. When she got there, she was taken aback to see that so many people had gathered to witness the one-set match, and that he had fixed the conditions of play, giving Lakshmi a minus 30 handicap. Despite his age, he turned out to be a very good player and she had to dig deep to come out victorious. Later, to her surprise, there was a big article on the match in his magazine, along with her photo!
In the same year, at the Tamil Nadu State Tournament held at the Madras Gymkhana Club, she won the Ladies Singles title, but her tennis career gradually tapered off. Lakshmi continued to play the game in clubs with her usual gusto and purely for pleasure. Meanwhile, she was inducted into the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association initially as a Councillor and later as a Vice President, and she served in this capacity for ten years until 2018.

Reminiscing about her tennis, Lakshmi remarked that Indian women mostly played in white salwar-kameezes or even saris, and that tennis in those days used to be great fun, played in a spirit of warm camaraderie. The players were expected to play for honour, not monetary gains; prize money in most tournaments was as low as Rs.25 for the winner if no trophy was awarded, but trophies were often made of pure silver. Players representing the State were generally given First or Second Class train tickets with Railway concessions and a modest, insufficient allowance.
She instituted two annual cash awards, one in the name of her mother Mrs. Nagamani Mahadevan for the Best Lady Player of the Year, and another in the name of her husband S. Muthukrishnan for the Best Boys Player of the year. Through her efforts, she got sponsors for the Inter-Club League tournaments exclusively for Ladies Doubles and Mixed Doubles.

Lakshmi’s racquet is now silent, but her love for tennis is loud and clear.

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