Like many other sports, tennis is also a legacy of the British Raj. The army officers and civilians in late 19th century played tennis as pastime. Soon, there were competitive tournaments for wider participation. But most such tournaments were won by British nationals, until an Indian, Mohd. Saleem of Lahore broke the stranglehold in 1915. Saleem was so good that he held Punjab Championship for eight successive years from 1919 to 1926. Saleem proved a great inspiration to several Indian players, who started participating in competitive tennis.
India made its maiden entry in Davis Cup in 1921, represented by Mohd. Saleem, SM Jacob, LS Deane and AA Fayzee. After Second World War, All India Lawn Tennis Association, AILTA, decided to organize national tournaments on Grass and Hard Courts. The first Grass Court National Championship was held at Calcutta in 1946, where Sumant Misra emerged as the winner. In the fifties, tennis fans in India were witness to the emergence of two mercurial players; Ramanathan Krishnan and Dilip Bose. Krishnan won the Grass court tournament as a 16-year old and then went on to win the 1954 boys championship at Wimbledon. Krishnan kept improving his game and as a seventh seed in Wimbledon 1960, he reached the semifinals, where he lost to the eventual champion Neale Fraser. In 1961 too, Krishnan reached the semifinals, when he defeated Roy Emerson, the Wimbledon champion in 1964 and 1965. However Krishnan lost the semifinals to Rod Laver, who won the championship that year. Krishnan’s artistic performance hoisted him as the fourth seed in Wimbledon 1962, but an ankle injury made him withdraw from the tournament.
In the sixties and much of the seventies, Ramanathan Krishnan, Jaideep Mukherjee, Premjit Lal and SP Misra dominated Indian tennis. They consistently performed well in Davis Cup and other Zonal matches. Premjit Lal and Jaideep Mukherjee won National and Asian Doubles on four occasions each. Krishnan, Lal and Mukherjee helped India reach the Davis Cup Final in 1966 but the team lost to Australia.
In the seventies, Vijay Amritraj appeared on the tennis scene and with his brother Anand, Shashi Menon and Jasjit Singh, Vijay provided a great strength to Indian tennis. Such efforts paved the way for India’s entry into Davis Cup Final for second time in 1974. But for political reasons, India could not play against South Africa in the Finals. Vijay Amritraj kept his game on the upper keel by playing several Grand Slam tournaments. Although, Vijay couldn’t win any championship, he advanced to third and fourth rounds many times, and even made it to the quarterfinals of the US open in 1973 and 1981.
After Vijay Amritraj, Ramanathan Krishnan’s son, Ramesh picked up the baton in the eighties, who had already proven his worth by winning the Boy’s Titles in French and Wimbledon tournaments in 1979. Ramesh foxed many of his opponents with touch artistry, anticipation and delicate placements, compensating for his notably poor service. He reached the US open quarterfinals in 1981 and 1987 and also made to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1986. Ramesh was a key member of the Indian team, which reached the Davis Cup final in 1987 against Sweden. But again India lost the final in Gothenburg.
The nineties belonged to Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. Like Ramesh, Leander Paes also won the Junior Wimbledon title. He also won the Boys title at the US Open. Paes is known for his fine performances in Davis Cup and Olympic games for India. Winning the Bronze medal in 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Paes is perhaps the only player in the world to represent his country in six consecutive Olympic Games from 1992 to 2012. Until 1999, he was the top doubles player in the world partnering with compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi. After their infamous split, Paes has continued to win many Grand Slam titles with different partners in Men’s and Mixed doubles tournaments. In 23 years of his playing career as a doubles player Paes have had as many as 95 partners from across the world.
In the women’s category, emergence of Sania Mirza brought a whip of fresh air to the Indian tennis some years ago. For a few seasons, she managed to deliver commendable performances, both at the national and international level. But injuries halted her success in the singles matches. These days she is concentrating on doubles and has made a name for herself in the women’s professional circuit playing with different partners. In the Men’s category, the only name today is Somdev Devvarman, who at 28 years of age can no longer be considered young. Rohan Bopana after some initial promise has also modeled his game on the lines of a double’s player. Sanam singh and Yuki Bhambri are the only other youngsters in the Indian tennis scene but they clearly lack the direction and guidance.