Over the past few decades, the popularity of tennis in India has surged.
Indian tennis players like Leander Paes, Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi have emerged as global superstars. Even in India – a cricket-mad nation – the trio is no less popular than the superstar cricketers.
While the three may represent the cream of Indian tennis’ current generation, there have been several other stars who have played their part in shaping the future of the sport in the country. Here’s a list of the most famous tennis players in India.
It was not until the 1960s, almost a decade after Independence, that Indian tennis truly started to carve out a place for itself on the international stage. Much of the credit goes to Ramanathan Krishnan.
Ramanathan Krishnan was the first Asian player to win the Wimbledon boys singles title in 1954, beating future four-time Grand Slam champion Ashley Cooper in the final. His senior career didn’t quite reach the highs of his junior career, but the Tamil Nadu-born Indian tennis player was a consistent performer at Grand Slam tournaments.
He reached the Wimbledon semi-finals twice in 1960 and 1961, whilst progressing to the French Open quarter-finals in 1962. In doubles, he reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals on four occasions.
Ramanathan Krishnan also played a pivotal part in India’s Davis Cup team for years, helping them finish runners up in the 1966 edition.
Some of his most famous victories include beating the legendary Rod Laver in the 1959 Davis Cup and 12-time Grand Slam singles champion Roy Emerson in the 1961 Wimbledon quarters.
In the 1966 Davis Cup final against Australia, Ramanathan Krishnan and his partner Jaidip Mukerjea beat John Newcombe and Tony Roche - the reigning Wimbledon doubles champions.
Post Ramanathan Krishnan’s retirement, the torch of Indian tennis passed on to Vijay Amritraj.
Vijay Amritraj reached four Grand Slam singles quarter-finals – twice at Wimbledon (1973 and 1981) and twice at the US Open (1973 and 1974).
A 15-time winner on the ATP Tour as a singles player, Vijay Amritraj also had several big scalps to his name, including a win over tennis icon John McEnroe at the 1984 Cincinnati Masters and a US Open triumph over Björn Borg.
Partnering with brother Anand Amritraj, Vijay also won 13 ATP titles and reached the semi-finals of the 1976 Wimbledon, where they lost to eventual champions, Brian Gottfried and Raul Ramirez.
Both the Amritraj brothers were key in helping India reach the finals of the 1974 and 1987 Davis Cups.
Son of Ramanathan, Ramesh Krishnan followed in his father’s footsteps. In the junior circuit, Ramesh emulated his father by winning the 1979 Wimbledon boys title and also added the French Open junior title to go with it.
Ramesh Krishnan won eight ATP singles titles over the course of his career and reached three Grand Slam quarter-finals - Wimbledon 1986 and the US Open in 1981 and 1987.
The Indian tennis player also beat a very young Andre Agassi in the final to win an ATP Challenger title in Schenectady, USA, in 1986.
The 1998 Padma Shri recipient was also part of the Indian team which reached the final of the Davis Cup in 1987.
Just one year before his retirement, at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Ramesh Krishnan partnered a very young Leander Paes and reached the men’s doubles quarter-finals. The seed for the future was sown.
A junior US Open and Wimbledon champion, Leander Paes turned professional in 1991.
Five years later, he emerged as the first megastar of Indian tennis by winning the singles bronze medal at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games after beating Brazilian player Fernando Meligeni. The medal was India’s first individual medal at the Summer Games since wrestler KD Jadhav won bronze in 1952.
Though the defining moment of his illustrious career came in singles, Leander Paes earned his place in the tennis hall of fame as a doubles player. In fact, Paes is regarded as one of the most successful tennis players in world tennis.
Leander Paes won eight men’s doubles Grand Slam titles – Wimbledon (1999), French Open (1999, 2001 and 2009), Australian Open (2012) and US Open (2006, 2009 and 2013).
In mixed doubles, too, Leander Paes boasts an impressive medal collection, winning the Wimbledon title four times, the Australian Open thrice, the US Open twice and the French Open once.
Paes was ranked the No. 1 doubles tennis player in the world in 1999 and also holds the record of most doubles wins at the Davis Cup.
Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes were brothers in arms during most of the latter’s early doubles exploits.
However, Bhupathi has a unique record in Indian tennis. Mahesh Bhupathi is the first Indian tennis player to win a Grand Slam after he clinched the 1997 French Open mixed doubles title with Japan’s Rika Hiraki.
Predominantly in Paes’ shadow during the pair’s three Grand Slam wins together from 1999 to 2001, Mahesh Bhupathi established himself as a legend in his own right. He won the 2002 US Open doubles title with Max Mirnyi and also has eight mixed doubles Grand Slam victories, winning each major twice.
At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Mahesh Bhupathi, partnering Leander Paes, narrowly missed out on a doubles bronze. The two reached the semi-finals but faltered in the bronze medal match against the Croatian team of Mario Ančić and Ivan Ljubičić.
The pair, however, won the 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze together.
Barring Leander and Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna is the only other Indian Grand Slam winner. He achieved this feat at the 2017 French Open mixed doubles event, winning it with Canadian partner Gabriela Dabrowski.
Rohan Bopanna also partnered Sania Mirza en route to the semi-finals at the Rio 2016 mixed-doubles event. They, however, lost the bronze medal match to Czech pair Lucie Hradecká and Radek Štěpánek.
Back at the 1998 Australian Open, Nirupama Sanjeev became the first Indian woman tennis player to win a Grand Slam match. But apart from that, India had very little to cheer about in the top tiers of women’s tennis.
Sania Mirza’s emergence changed that big time.
A Wimbledon girls’ doubles champion, Sania Mirza became the first Indian woman singles player to win a WTA title after triumphing at the Hyderabad Open in 2005. She is, till date, the only Indian woman to win a WTA singles event.
Four years later, Sania became the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam after winning the mixed doubles prize at the 2009 Australian Open with Mahesh Bhupathi. Two years later, the pair clinched the French Open as well.
Sania Mirza’s third mixed doubles Slam was with Brazilian Bruno Soares at the 2014 US Open.
In 2015, Sania partnered Swiss legend Martina Hingis. Labelled Santina by fans, the two went on an incredible 44-match winning streak and won three back-to-back Grand Slam doubles titles – Wimbledon 2015, US Open 2015 and French Open 2016.
During this period, Sania also became the first Indian woman to reach the No. 1 in WTA doubles rankings.
Besides her Grand Slam titles, Sania also has a whopping 42 WTA doubles titles to her name.
In addition to these seven Indian stars, prominent players of the yore like Zeeshan Ali, Somdev Devvarman, Jasjit Singh, Premjit Lall, Jaidip Mukerjea and Ghaus Mohammad also deserve a special mention.
With Sumit Nagal, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Ankita Raina and several other Indian tennis players coming up fast, the future looks bright as well.