Indian Tennis: from past to present
Tennis has always held a special place in the heart of Indian fans.
The sport, particularly the Grand Slams, attracts a lot of viewership in the second most populated country in the world with several Indian players like Leander Paes, Vijay Amritraj and Sania Mirza making it big on the international stage.
In recent times, Indian tennis players have grabbed more of a solid foothold in the sport, with players from the country participating regularly at Grand Slam tournaments.
The sport has come a long way from when it was first introduced in India.
Like most other sports in India, tennis is a direct by-product of British colonialism with the game being a pastime of the rulers back then. They established the All India Tennis Association (AITA) in the 1890s which helped organise nationwide tournaments and scout for future talent in the sport.
While it has been around since the late 19th century, only after independence did tennis in India gain traction with Ramanathan Krishnan and Premjit Lal entering the fray as the most prominent singles players.
Ramanathan Krishnan was one of the stars of Indian tennis in the 1950s and ‘60s and is a record six-time All India Championships winner.
He never managed to reach the finals of any Grand Slam, with his best effort being back-to-back Wimbledon semis in 1960 and '61, as he fell to the eventual winner of the tournament on both occasions.
The Tamil Nadu-based tennis player failed to win any major international competition in his career, but nevertheless motivated and ushered in the next generation of athletes through his delicate and creative tennis.
The Amritraj kin
After Ramanathan Krishnan retired from the sport in 1968, there was a void in Indian tennis which was quickly filled by Vijay Amritraj, who burst onto the scene at just 17 years old.
Vijay Amritraj was the biggest name in Indian tennis for the next decade, fighting against some of the best in the world of the time. He made early waves when, along with elder brother Anand Amritraj, he reached the doubles semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1976.
The Indian beat three-time Wimbledon winner John McEnroe at the Cincinnati Masters in 1984, while giving tough fights to the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon.
The baton then passed to the Chennai-born athlete’s son Prakash Amritraj, who also took to the sport and played for many years on the ATP Tour.
The 1990s was when Indian tennis went through a slight metamorphosis as all their major players began entering more tennis tournaments in the doubles categories. A watershed moment was achieved in Indian tennis as Leander Paes won the nation’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years at Atlanta '96.
Following that triumph, Leander Paes teamed up with Lisa Raymond and went on to win Wimbledon in 1999. He also partnered with tennis legend Martina Navratilova to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon four years later.
Apart from doing well in the mixed doubles category, Leander Paes also found major success in men’s doubles, partnering fellow Indian Mahesh Bhupathi. The duo won Wimbledon as well as the French Open in 1999, beating some of the best names in international tennis of the time and were also ranked no. 1 in men’s doubles at one point.
‘Lee-Hesh’ also won the French Open again a couple of years later, while Mahesh Bhupathi bagged the top prize at the 2002 US Open playing with Belarusian Max Mirnyi.
The Indian tennis duo also enjoyed a phenomenal 24-match unbeaten run in Davis Cup ties between 1995-2010, with their best effort being a quarter-final appearance in 1996.
Indian tennis’ brightest stars in the past decade or so have been Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna.
The former rose to prominence with some notable performances in the International Tennis Federation’s junior circuit and won Wimbledon as well as the US Open in 2015, partnering with Swiss star Martina Hingis in the women’s doubles category.
She also helped the Indian tennis team reach the playoff stage of the Fed Cup recently, the first time they had achieved the feat.
Rohan Bopanna also achieved Grand Slam success in 2017 as a mixed doubles player. The two have also represented India in the Olympics a few times, but have never managed to make it into medal contention.
Apart from Mirza and Bopanna, the country has a few youngsters like Sumit Nagal, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran** and Ankita Raina, who are still forging their careers and aspiring to earn accolades.
The men’s trio were part of the Indian tennis Davis Cup team which fell after a dogged effort against Croatia in the qualifiers while Ankita Raina was part of the Fed Cup team to make it to the playoffs. Sumit Nagal, meanwhile, grabbed national sports headlines when he forced Roger Federer to drop a set at the 2019 US Open.
While cricket will always be the most popular sport in the country, tennis retains a special place in people's affections - especially since Leander Paes’ Olympic bronze in 1996.