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 tennis has been around since the late 19th century, it was only after independence that the sport gained traction in India with the likes of Ramanathan Krishnan and Premjit Lal entering the fray.
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 got to the semifinals of Wimbledon in back to back seasons in 1960 and '61, losing 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 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.
Amritraj was the biggest name in Indian tennis for the next decade, fighting against some of the best in the world of the time.
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.
Despite having limited training facilities at the time, Amritraj managed to get to the quarterfinals of the US Open and Wimbledon twice in his career. He also reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in the men’s doubles category, pairing up with his brother Anand Amritraj.
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 focusing more on doubles competitions. A watershed moment was achieved in Indian sports as Leander Paes won the nation’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years at Atlanta '96.
Following that triumph, 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, 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.
‘Lee-Hesh’ also won the French Open again a couple of years later, while Bhupathi bagged the top prize at the 2002 US Open playing with Belarusian Max Mirnyi.
Paes and Bhupathi also participated together in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where they lost to eventual gold medallists Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland.
Indian tennis’ brightest stars in the past decade or so have been Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna. The former won Wimbledon as well as the US Open in 2015, partnering with Swiss star Martina Hingis in the women’s doubles category.
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, Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ankita Raina, who are still forging their careers and aspiring to earn accolades.
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.