Frontlist | Author on tracing Indian tennis’ rich history, forgotten legacy of women’s game and more in book
A banker by profession, Anindya Dutta’s latest book, called Advantage India: The Story of Indian Tennis, is a deep dive on pre-Independence tennis, the early players, the Krishnans, Amritrajs, doubles and women’s tennis.
Contrary to popular belief, India has had an extensive history in tennis on both the men’s and women’s side. The challenge thus far had been in finding sources of information that went beyond just the scorelines and looked at the story behind a player.
That was the starting point for Anindya Dutta before starting work on his latest book ‘Advantage India: The Story of Indian Tennis’. A banker by profession, Dutta has previously penned books on cricket before taking up the challenge to chronicle the history of Indian tennis. The book is a deep dive on pre-Independence tennis, the early players, the Krishnans, Amritrajs, doubles and women’s tennis.
Tell us a little bit about your research. How long was your research process?
If you want to refer to something in the early years of Indian tennis, there’s virtually nothing. I mean, there, there was this book written by Mr PK Dutta. That’s about it. It was the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting which had brought this out, I think maybe 20 years ago, something like that. It was a list of players which he could gather from, from the archives that he had access to. But there wasn’t more information than that. It was more that, you know, they had played a little bit here, this is what they had done. I thought that was a good starting point. And what I did was, I then started going into the research of it. Everything that you see on the internet is clearly copied from that book. So the only way to get information on these was going through the archives, which has more information on that. So I started tracing it back like I had done for all the books, step by step. There were a few names already available so I started taking each one of them and searching in the British newspaper archives for anything related to them in the past 200 years. So that was one starting point. I must have spent 200-plus hours on that archive itself.
And then I started getting hold of old books. So I know a lot of the old booksellers, the rare booksellers in England and I went to them and asked them for specific books which have been out of print for a very long time. And they found me some which was very helpful. I mean, they’re Indian books, it’s just that they’re not available in India or they’re with some kabadiwala somewhere! And these guys have preserved it. Some guy in England preserved it, and his grandson has probably sold it to a library, who sold it to a bookseller. I mean, that’s how this works.
I got a Cota Ramaswami book, I wanted his autobiography which is called ‘Ramblings of a Games Addict’. It’s a fascinating book. Very few copies are around because it was privately printed in a press in Chennai. So one of these guys suddenly came back to me and said, ‘As it so happens, I’ve got a copy of this book. I’ve had it for some time, it’s not in great shape. Do you want it?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah sure’. So I got that. That was fascinating, because a part of his book, a reasonable part, is devoted to tennis, because he really loved playing tennis. He played tennis at a very high level as I discovered while reading that book. And he talks about other players of that era and describes their style of play, for example, he describes episodes with them.
So that was a great starting point from that respect for the early years. So I started picking those up, then I went into each one of them, and started researching them in the various archives around the world. So if they had played in the French Championships and they had gone up to a certain round, I got in there and tried to find who their opponents were, history about their opponents, what happened thereafter. Then I found other archives which you just got to keep searching for them
In the book, there’s a chapter on Sydney Jacob. After I’d written the first draft of his chapter, I managed to locate one copy of his book which is actually signed by him presented to somebody. So, I got a lot of stuff out of that book, I got some photos which appear in ‘Advantage India‘ as well. So, you know, that’s how it worked.
What does Indian tennis look like pre-Independence?
Tennis was played at a very high level by Indian players. When I say Indian players, there are people like Mohammed Sleem, who are Indian by race. He was a barrister, there’s records of him being part of historical trials during the British rule. And he was called by Bill Tilden as the best baseliner in the world. So that should give you some idea of how good they were. Then you had players like Sydney Jacob, Lewis Deane who are of British descent but they were born and brought up in India. I label Lewis Deane as the first proper Indian player, the reason being, he played under the British-Indian flag, unlike the others where they declared themselves as British. He declared himself as an Indian. So when you go back to the archives, he appears as representing India, whereas you’ll find a lot of the early British players who were born and brought up in India, but they will appear under the British flag.
The fascinating thing is the first time we played Davis Cup in 1921, we reached the semi-finals. It was unbelievable. In the quarter-finals we beat the best team in the world: France. And France had ‘The Four Musketeers’ (Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, Rene Lacoste) and India beat them. So you can imagine what the quality of that team was. And then the doubles pair, which was the Fyzee brothers (Hassan-Ali and Athar-Ali). I would say they were the precursor of Amritraj brothers. They were both doctors. Hassan-Ali also represented India in the All England Badminton Championships and won a medal at the first World Table Tennis Championships. So you’re talking about very, very superior quality sportspeople.
Then you had Ghaus Muhammad who was probably one of the top five-six players in the world of his time in those two-three years that he had before the Second World War broke out. He beat every top player in the world during his time, multiple times. So who knows he might well have been our first Grand Slam champion if the war had not happened.
There were a few things. The first, in terms of singles players, you have to have the serve. After Vijay (Amritraj), the next one to have a decent serve in singles was probably (Mahesh) Bhupathi. Leander’s (Paes) serve wasn’t great, right? Leander was more about how unbelievably quick he was and how good he was at the net, or he is at the net. And Ramesh Krishnan’s serve was just to put the ball in play. So Vijay was probably the one who was at the peak of what could be called a really good singles player. At that time, it was very unfortunate that he didn’t go through and actually win those crucial matches and go up higher than he did. But we probably had the best chance with Vijay.
And Ramanathan Krishnan was just an unbelievable player. From everything that I’ve heard about him and read about him, he’s by far the greatest single player we’ve ever had. He rose to number three in the world that by itself tells you something. He reached two Wimbledon semi-finals and the third time, it was a weak field because the professionals were not allowed and he was an amateur, and playing a doubles match, he hurt his ankle. Otherwise, he would have won Wimbledon that year.
I think what happened thereafter was that tennis itself changed: it required you to be taller, stronger, fitter than the likes of Ramesh Krishnan were for example. Leander was very fit but his game wasn’t really built for singles in the same way as Vijay Amritraj’s was.
Then I think the major change that has happened in tennis is that the money that goes into making a successful tennis player has just skyrocketed. The resources required in terms of coaches, support staff etc has gone up a lot. There’s never been support from the association. And it’s obvious that every major tennis player who came through came through because of their families or support system around them. There was no system driven growth of tennis players and there still isn’t. It’s probably even worse than it was before. So without a proper support system, we’re never going to have players good enough to go and win singles Grand Slams. You’ve got Sumit Nagal today but he doesn’t have the kind of support you need to succeed at that level. And he’s just one player.
I think it’s an issue of financial support, of how corporates don’t put money in it. Maybe they just don’t see the rewards, but none of them are willing to put in for the long term. You have to have the systemic support of having tournaments. Look at the ‘golden era’ of Indian tennis in the book, which is Ramanathan Krishnan, Premjit Lall, Jaidip Mukherjea. For me that was the defining period of Indian tennis. During that time, you had the Calcutta South Club and you had various organisers around the country, bring in foreign players to play domestic tennis. These were happening in Indian winter, and the top players in the world came and they were playing in domestic tournaments, in small tournaments in Vijayawada, all over the country. And the Indian players got a chance to play against these top players in the world. So when they went to play the summer in Europe, they were playing Queen’s Club, Cannes and Monaco, they were not overawed by the people that they were facing. It’s a similar situation to having the IPL. So they are that much more confident when they go to Wimbledon and they’re meeting them in the third round, fourth round. And they’re able to have the confidence to play them. If you don’t have that, how are you going to get the level of tennis to go up? So the likes of Nitin Kirtane, Nandan Bal, how would these guys get the money to go and and spend the summer in Europe? And if you don’t, you’ll never raise your level of play.
So a lot of it’s been the financial aspect, the lack of administrative backing. And then it’s a vicious cycle that if people don’t see heroes and people succeeding around them, they are not encouraged to take up the sport to that extent.
The wonderful thing about Leander is his ability to significantly raise his game when he’s playing for his country.
Do you believe the players focussed largely on the singles and not the doubles back then?
I’d hesitate to agree to that. The reason being that they actually played a substantial amount of doubles. I think Premjit and Jaidip played doubles every year in Wimbledon. And they reached the quarter-finals, things like that. You have to understand the fact that the quality of Leander and Bhupathi was something very, very special as far as doubles is concerned. It wasn’t because there weren’t good enough players playing doubles. There are a lot of people who make the assumption that if you’re not good enough to play singles, then you play doubles, which is completely not true. It might be to an extent for certain people. But you require completely different skills to play doubles. And sometimes you have the game for doubles but you don’t for singles. That doesn’t mean you’re a worse player or anything.
For Ramanathan Krishnan, if you look at his Davis Cup record, he had some fantastic doubles wins. So Krishnan and Naresh Kumar first, then Krishnan and Jaidip Mukherjea, then Krishnan and Premjit Lall, Jaidip and Premjit Lall all played a lot of doubles. Akhtar Ali to some extent. They all played a lot of doubles and they were very good at it. So I hesitate to say that they were only singles players, but they were also very good singles players.
Vijay, I think, the more he played in singles, the less he played doubles. He didn’t play so much doubles. Of course, he played with Anand in the Davis Cup and on the circuit quite a bit, but not as much as he played in singles, just because I guess the amount of time that he was spending playing singles didn’t give him enough time.
But yeah they played both singles and doubles. But they’re better known for certain singles results and singles is something that people always focus on. So you just pay more attention to them. Plus the fact that they didn’t have the kind of doubles results in the big tournaments, in the Grand Slams like Leander, Mahesh, (Rohan) Bopanna and Sania (Mirza) have.
Coming to Leander. Multiple Slams, Olympic medal, Davis Cup success, do you think it can be matched and is he the best Indian tennis player in history?
If you ask Leander, and I did, he told me Ramanathan Krishnan is the best. I can understand that given you have someone who’s gone to number three in the world in singles, reached two Wimbledon semi-finals, could have won one. You have to give him that respect. But if you’re talking about the second-best player in Indian tennis ever, it has to be Leander. The best doubles player ever has to be Leander.
The wonderful thing about Leander is his ability to significantly raise his game when he’s playing for his country. And I have so much respect for that. Despite the 18 Grand Slams, doubles titles, mixed doubles titles and Leander Paes playing for India is a completely different kettle of fish. You sit down and talk to him about the victories for India and he will have tears in his eyes even today. You have to take your hat off to a person like that, who just feels so much for their country when they play for the flag.
That was also true for Ramanathan Krishnan. Playing at the South Club, the year they reached the Davis Cup finals (1966) and playing Brazil. (Against Thomaz Koch) He comes back from match point down, two sets down, 2-5 to win the thing when everybody’s left the court.
There’s another story on Sumant Misra. He doesn’t get enough credit for what he did. In the 1952 Davis Cup, if India win against Italy, they go into the inter-zonal final to play the United States. Sumant Misra has a ruptured hernia. He’s got it strapped up. He goes in and wins his singles, goes against doctor’s advice, plays the doubles with Naresh Kumar because if they win the doubles, then they have the best chance of going through. In the end, his body gives way and they’re not able to win the doubles. Naresh Kumar still wins his singles match but I think they lose three-two.
So people like that just elevated themselves. Leander Paes did that so many times: against Goran Ivanisevic, Henri Leconte. I think he’s a very, very special player because of that.
On the women’s side, it is believed that history isn’t as rich as the men’s. Is that true?
Something that might surprise you is that the first mixed doubles event in India was played the same year when the first mixed doubles event was played at Wimbledon. It’s that far back. I’ve got a whole section on women’s tennis and I deliberately wrote that to disprove the fact that women’s tennis does not have the kind of history that men’s tennis does. It actually does.
The first Indian to reach a Grand Slam final is actually a woman. Rita Davar in 1952 reached the junior Wimbledon final. It was the next year that Ramanathan Krishnan won the juniors boys Wimbledon final. At 1952 Wimbledon final, she was on match point but she lost her nerve. Otherwise, she could well have been India’s first Grand Slam event winner in any kind of an event.
When we got our independence, in 1947 the first national championships was the first time an Indian woman won the national championship. Before that, for 50 years, it had been British women winning. Later you have Nirupama Mankad, who was a brilliant player. Then there’s the story of Kiran Bedi. Everybody remembers Kiran Bedi as the IPS officer but, for me, first and foremost she’s a tennis player, India’s national champion. She won the women’s Asian Championship.
I just find it fascinating that so much of that history is forgotten or is not known. There were a lot of Parsi women who played tennis at a high level. Tennis sort of started in Lahore with the Punjab Championship, and then Calcutta took over and you had essentially the South Club leading everything with the National Championship, and then you had Allahabad. Then Madras had the Krishnans, Amritrajs and that whole whole tradition of tennis, but the early women’s tennis was played in the West. So it was played in Bombay, Poona and going up to Karachi.
Mehri Tata, wife of Dorab Tata, she was part of the 1924 Olympic squad and played mixed doubles with Mohammed Sleem. They pulled out in the second round. Nobody knows why they pulled out, but an archival reference said that maybe it was to allow Sleem to play a singles match which would otherwise have clashed. Meherbai is very well known because she campaigned for the Child Marriage Restraint Act. And got it passed. Then you have Jenny Sandison and later Nirupama Vaidyanathan who reached the second round of the Aussie open in singles, and then Sania Mirza. Sania obviously changed everything as far as women’s tennis is concerned.