Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 18, January 16-31, 2021
Ramanathan Krishnan (seated), with Ramesh.
Is it really 54 years since I heard the lady announcer over All India Radio give listeners all over the nation the joyous news? For me it’s so crystal clear that it might have been yesterday. “India has entered the Davis Cup Challenge Round for the first time,’’ she said in a controlled, balanced voice no doubt trying her best to suppress the happy emotions she was going through. It was headline news, one we thought we would never hear. Yes, Ramanathan Krishnan was among the leading players in the world and he had able support in Premjit Lal and Jaideep Mukherjea. It was also true that the Indians had made it to the Davis Cup inter-zone final on a few occasions but over the years had faltered at this last obstacle the hurdling over of which was the passport to the title clash and the right to challenge the defending champions.
In those days the Davis Cup mainly kept changing hands from Australia to the USA and back again. But India thanks in the main to Krishnan’s feats remained a serious challenger. India entered the inter-zone final for the first time in 1956 only to lose to the USA. Three years later we went down in the same round to Australia despite Krishnan’s brilliant victory over the then Wimbledon runner-up Rod Laver. In 1962 India had the advantage of playing the inter-zone final in Krishnan’s hometown of Madras but we went down to Mexico whose challenge was spearheaded by Rafael Osuna, one of the fastest movers on court. The following year India again played at home but this time it was the USA with Wimbledon champion Chuck McKinley in their team who emerged triumphant at Bombay. Two years later India lost in the inter-zone final to Spain.
Given this background it did seem unlikely that India would ever make it to the Challenge Round. In December 1966 the Brazilians descended on the grass courts at the South Club in Calcutta to play the inter-zone final. The visitors were favourites for they had a younger and fitter two-man squad in Thomas Koch and Edison Mandarino who had shocked the USA 3-2 in the previous round. But with Krishnan and Mukherjea spearheading the Indian challenge it could still be a close finish possibly going down to the fifth rubber.
This is exactly what happened. On the opening day Koch, then one of the fast rising players in world tennis proved too strong for Mukherjea but Krishnan restored parity by outplaying Mandarino. A lot would now depend on the doubles which pitted Krishnan and Mukherjea against Koch and Mandarino. It was a thriller that went to a fifth set before the Indians raised the level of their game to break through.
India were in front but on the third day Mandarino and Mukherjea fought a ding-dong tussle that again went to the fifth set. This time it was the Brazilian who emerged victorious and Koch and Krishnan took the court with their teams having everything to play for.
It was youth vs experience. The 21-year-old Koch was the higher ranked player but the 29-year-old Indian maestro though perhaps a little past his peak could still present a formidable challenge especially when it came to Davis Cup. The players won a set each and midway through the long third set it was obvious that the tie would be extended to a fourth day. Koch however won the third set to gain an important lead and when play resumed the following day he quickly settled down and raced to a 3-0 lead which he stretched to 5-2.
Krishnan had always been a slow starter but was he leaving it a little too late? Koch needed to win only one game to wrap up the tie for Brazil and steer them to the Challenge Round for the first time. But even in this precarious position Krishnan was a picture of poise and perfection. Possessing the ideal temperament he first held serve in the eighth game and then commenced an astonishing turnabout. Under the relentless pressure exerted by Krishnan Koch’s game collapsed. Even as the capacity crowd went wild with delight Krishnan reeled off nine games in a row winning the fourth set 7-5 and then going ahead 4-0 in the decider.
Now surely it was a matter of time before Krishnan wrapped up things and he did not falter. Koch had the consolation of taking two games but it was Krishnan who won the set 6-2 and amidst jubilant scenes carried India virtually on his shoulders to the Challenge Round.
A little later came that AIR announcement for final confirmation of Indian tennis’ most historic moment. And the following morning Krishnan received a hero’s welcome. When he arrived at Madras airport he was profusely garlanded and a guard of honour was provided by members of the Madras Cricket Club holding tennis rackets under which Krishnan walked. This welcome was organised by the MCC’s S.R. Subramanyan aka Ayya.
I shall never forget those four memorable days when I sat glued to the radio listening to the commentary as history unfolded. Naturally I did not miss the running commentary on the title clash held three weeks later. There was never any chance of India pulling off a victory against the awesome champions who had two-time Wimbledon champion Roy Emerson and three-time runner-up Fred Stolle playing singles and reigning Wimbledon champions Tony Roche and John Newcombe on duty in the doubles. In fact I remember after the first day when both Krishnan and Mukherjea lost in straight sets to Stolle and Emerson respectively one of the commentators prophesized that India would not even win a set.
The following day came a glorious moment in Indian tennis when Krishnan and Mukherjea shocked Newcombe and Roche in four sets. So the tie was still open going into the final day and even though Emerson outplayed Krishnan in straight sets to make sure the cup would stay ‘Down Under’ Mukherjea won a lot of friends by taking Stolle to five sets. Australia won 4-1 but the Indians were far from disgraced.