Past Forward : Hyderabad and Wimbledon
When I think of the 2013th edition of the Wimbledon, beginning tomorrow, I feel transported NOT to the All-England Club or to the charmed centre court...
When I think of the 2013th edition of the Wimbledon, beginning tomorrow, I feel transported NOT to the All-England Club or to the charmed centre court no. 1, but to Charminar Chourastha of the early Sixties. Yes, you heard me right!
This is no nonsense. It was here that some of the top-ranked tennis players of the world, including Wimbledon champions, had played. Hard to believe, but true. These matches were played at Nawab Mehdi Jung stadium, which was modelled after the historic centre court at Wimbledon. The stadium, built by Hyderabad's tennis pioneer of the same name in 1937, was demolished in 1963. On his invitation, Bill Tilden (US) and Henri Cochet (France), both Wimbledon champs, agreed to play. Tilden described the stadium as one of the best he had seen in Asia. It stood behind the present Telephone Exchange building in Musheerabad.
My introduction to power tennis was, when as a student, I was smuggled into the press box, courtesy my late brother, DH Kesava Rao, sports reporter of 'The Indian Express'. It was an exhibition match between Roy Emerson of Australia and Ramanathan Krishnan, who had twice made it to the semi-final at Wimbledon. It was a classic fight between serve and volley on the one hand and touch artistry on the other. Emerson found himself outfoxed time and again by Krishnan's drop shots, but sheer speed and stamina saw him through. This was in February 1962. Emerson went on to bag Wimbledon and 11 other grand slam titles, a record broken many years later by Pete Sampras (US).
I was also witness to exhibition matches at the same venue featuring Ashley Cooper, Alex Olmedo, Wimbledon champs, Andres Gemino, Mal Anderson, Barry Mackay and others. India had not been able to attract the top 10 to play on her courts, except for the Davis Cup fixtures. We never had Bjorn Borg, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer playing in India. Very few know that Rafeal Nadal came to India a few years ago, to help set up a tennis academy at Anantapur.
It was a rare feast for tennis fans when the Kramer circus toured India in the late 50s. The key players of the circus, founded by the former Wimbledon champion, were not trained lions, tigers, elephants or monkeys, but a troupe of highly-paid professional tennis players. Until 1968, all major tennis tournaments were open exclusively to amateur players. They were not allowed to play for money. Jack Kramer lured champions to run pro, join his circus to play exhibition matches across the world. Led by my brother-in-law, Kotamraju Krishnamurthy, a group of fans from Bapatla, all aged 50 or more, journeyed to Madras in 1959-60 to watch Kramer circus in action. A sudden overnight downpour waterlogged the courts.
He told me that tens of gallons of petrol were emptied on the court and set afire to make it fit for play! Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewal, Pancho Segura, some of them Wimbledon champions, were seen in action. It was a lifetime experience. Long before Sania Mirza or the Mishra brothers put Hyderabad on the tennis map, one Hyderabadi by name, Ghouse Mohammed, made waves at the Wimbledon and the French Open as early as the late Thirties. His backhand drive was great and his serve was regarded as one of the fastest in the game. He was the first Indian to enter the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. He lost to the world No. 1 and eventual winner, Bobby Riggs, in 1939. His record was bettered only in the Sixties when Ramnathan Krishnan entered the semi-finals in 1960 and 61. That was as far as an Indian could go till date. Krishnan is the only Indian to figure in the top 10.
An Afridi pathan, who had migrated from Lucknow, Ghouse Mohammed was national champion for 11 years and had played in the Davis Cup tourney in 1938, 39 and 47. Later, he joined Osmania University and was its Director of Physical Education. Until the end of the late 60s, he was a familiar figure in the Osmania campus, sporting trademark pipe and majestically riding a motorbike. I had written in my weekly column in The Deccan Chronicle 40 years ago that GM's services deserved to be recognised. He was later conferred Padmasri.
Another Hyderabad stalwart is SP Misra, a regular in the Davis Cup matches during the sixties. He was part of the team (Krishnan, Premjit lal and Jaideep Mukherjea) that made it to the Davis Cup final against Australia in 1966. Australia had won, but Krishnan and Jaideep humbled John Newcombe and Tony Roche, then Wimbledon doubles champions. Misra was manager of the tennis squad for the London Olympics and continues to be non-playing captain of India's Davis Cup team. He and younger brother, SS Misra, were the leading doubles players of the 60s.