Ramanathan Krishnan was awarded the lifetime achievement award as part of the first ESPN India Awards.
Ramanathan Krishnan inspired a whole generation of players. I never tire of saying this.
He was the guy who took India to the Wimbledon and Davis Cup finals, so growing up, for my brother Vijay and myself, he was the one we looked up to and for that we are really grateful.
He was the first to put India on the tennis map and I'd like to think that Vijay and I followed his footsteps.
I made my Davis Cup debut in 1968 under Krishnan's captaincy and in 1973 he played me in the opening singles for the very first time. I continued to play both singles and doubles with Vijay until the 1980s so I owe it to Krishnan for that as well. I've great regard for him both as a player and a human being, there's no doubt about that. India needed that one great tennis player, and he was it. So when Vijay and I were coming up, the three guys to beat were Krishnan, Mukerjea (Jaidip) and Lall (Premjit). Krishnan was unbeatable we knew, so we didn't get our hopes high on that happening but we were trying to catch up with the other two guys, who were also great players but of course not in the same league as Krishnan. Krishnan was an icon.
We both hail from the same city, Chennai, or as we are fond of calling it, Madras, and Krishnan is obviously a household name there. One of the nicest things he did was when he recently, along with his son Ramesh, came to our house to wish my mother on her 91st birthday in January this year. They had never visited our home before, and I was so touched that despite being someone who rarely steps out of his house, he chose to make the trip. Luckily I was in the city then and so we spent a good hour together.
Even though we hardly see much of each other, the Krishnans and Amritrajs have always been fairly close. Ramesh played with Vijay and me all the time at the Madras Cricket Club. We had some great doubles matches on a regular basis. But I've seen Krishnan on very rare occasions after he moved away from the sport, so that made it doubly special when he chose to visit us recently. I too made it a point to stay back in Chennai for his 80th birthday, which was roughly a week after my mother's in January this year, and which had many other former Indian players flying in to Chennai from different cities to wish him and be there with him. That's the kind of thing Krishnan can move people to do.
In the 60s Krishnan was at the forefront of Indian and world tennis. He was after all, No 3 in the world. It was December 1962, I remember I was ten and Vijay was nine years old when we first saw him. We told our teachers we had taken ill, took the day off from school on Friday and went with our parents to watch the India-Mexico inter-zonal final Davis Cup tie happening in our hometown, Madras. It was such an amazing experience and we were there in attendance on all the three days of play. On the first day, Mukerjea lost to Tony Palafox in the opening rubber and Krishnan, though he also lost, played a brilliant five-setter against Rafael Osuna. Mexico eventually took the tie 5-0 but it wasn't so much about the result. Both the players and crowds turned every match into such an unforgettable experience.
The city was nothing like it is now. We had a 10,000-strong crowd in the stands. I saw similar numbers when we played Australia in 1973, even though that was a disaster and we lost 4-0, and also in 1979 when we lost 2-3, again to Australia. Davis Cup was huge back then and the two biggest hubs were Madras, more than anywhere else, and Kolkata. We had no TV those days at home so you would either listen to the Grand Slam results on the radio or read it in the next day's papers. I was 11 when I first heard a Wimbledon final on radio. It was the one between Chuck McKinley and Fred Stolle in 1963.
Most people might not know or think so, but Krishnan is a really humorous guy. As non-playing captain he held the team together. I remember we were playing Japan in Tokyo in 1975 and it was freezing cold. Krishnan promised to take us for steaks if we won the tie. We played on clay against some of their best players like Toshiro Sakai and Jun Kamiwazumi, managing to win 3-2 under really tough conditions. On Sunday night Krishnan kept his word. He took us all out for a steak dinner and we had such a great time.
In my three-year stint as Davis Cup captain for India which ended last year, I tried to be the kind of influence that Krishnan was on us. The focus being on bringing the best out of players, keeping the team in good spirits and generally having a relaxed atmosphere in the side. Of course playing well is the priority, but it's also was about having a good time as a bunch.
Mealtimes are a great way for team members to bond, like Krishnan did back then, and I too tried to follow the same in my time. You know it's true what they say, a team that eats together, stays together.
(As told to Susan Ninan)