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Calcutta's South Club: The long-forgotten home of India's tennis history

Some of the earliest tournaments (for instance the national championships that began in 1946 and the 1949 Asian Championships - the first international tournament to be held in independent India) were held at the South Club. Jonathan Selvaraj/ESPN

Players, officials and spectators are greeted by a banner featuring a clever bit of wordplay as they enter the venue for the Davis Cup tie between India and Italy in Kolkata.

"The grass is greener at South Club".

There's something to that boast. There are tennis clubs and then there are tennis clubs. And among tennis facilities in India, there are not many like Calcutta's South Club. Founded in 1920, it has tradition. It also has lots of grass - six grass courts (down from a high of 18) - to be precise. Moreover, few locations are as synonymous with India's rich Davis cup history as the South Club.

It's held more Davis Cup ties than any other site in India (the Italy tie will be the 11th held here, with India winning 8 so far), produced more Davis Cup players than any other institution and borne witness to some of India's greatest wins. "It's the mecca of tennis in India," says Akhtar Ali who represented India at the world-level team tournament from 1958 to 1964.

But it was also where it began. "South Club might be the home of Indian tennis but is also its nursery," says Naresh Kumar. "Some of the earliest tournaments (for instance the national championships that began in 1946 and 1949 Asian Championships - the first international tournament to be held in independent India) were held here. The pioneers of the sport - Dilip Bose and Sumant Misra (the first winner of the national championships) - played here," says Kumar.

"Sir L P Misra (father of Sumant and the chief commissioner of the Indian Railways) was a huge fan of tennis. One day, he was hoping to play before the courts filled up. He was in such a rush to play that he parked his car at Park Street intersection and started changing his clothes inside his vehicle. Unfortunately, he was spotted by a policeman and booked for indecent exposure," recalls Kumar.

But it wasn't just Indians who were trying to play on the courts. The South Club has hosted some of the biggest names in international tennis. On the walls of the clubhouse are mounted black and white photographs of some of the greats of world tennis. The four musketeers of France - Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste - who won 20 Grand Slam singles titles between them toured the club in 1926. 28-time Grand Slam winner Roy Emerson's name is up on the honours board of the winners of the national lawn tennis championships (he won in 1961), as is that of Romania's Ilie Nastase, who won the title in 1968.

"I've seen Frank Sedgman (who won 5 Grand Slam singles titles between 1949 and 1952) and I've played alongside players like Emerson. They would regularly come to India during the European winter. There weren't many covered courts in Europe then, so most of their top players would come to India, and particularly the South Club, to play in," says Kumar.

Kumar says that exposure to some of the greats of the game helped Indian singles tennis players improve their game. "The best European players came here. I learned so much from them. How much more they used to work. It wasn't that we were wonderboys. But we picked up from the best," says Kumar, who would go on to play in the fourth round of the 1955 Wimbledon singles championships .

It wasn't just players in the academy who benefited from watching high-quality matches. Vece Paes, father of Leander Paes, recalls finding a fascination for tennis after watching the 1966 Davis Cup tie between India and Brazil from the terrace of a nursing home overlooking the club courts.

"I wasn't too interested in tennis then. One day, a senior doctor told me that I could watch the India-Brazil match from the terrace of his nursing home that overlooked the courts. And that was one of the most thrilling matches I had seen (India eventually winning 3-2 with Ramanathan Krishnan coming back from two sets to one down to beat US Open quarterfinalist Thomaz Koch 3-6 6-4 10-12 7-5 6-2). I began seeing the sport differently then. I suppose some of that enthusiasm must have rubbed off on Leander too," says Paes, who son would eventually start playing at the South Club.

The Club would continue to shape Leander's career. It did so, incidentally, during another of the great upsets in the Davis Cup - India's 3-2 win over Italy in 1985. "Leander was a ball boy at the 1985 Davis Cup when India beat Italy. But during the warm-ups, Vijay Amritraj wanted a hitting partner. At that time, Anwar Ali (Leander's first coach had warned him and said he might even lose the set to him) but Amritraj clearly saw enough and he selected Leander to come and train at the BAT (Brittania Amritraj tennis) Academy in Chennai. That's where Leander got his first professional tennis training," says Paes.

Leander's life would be intertwined with a third of India's surprise wins - the 3-2 victory over Switzerland in 1993. Few had given India much hope before the contest and even the tie itself seemed to be in doubt after heavy rains on the opening day. The chance of a repeat is unlikely; now that the club has managed to procure the services of a super sopper from Eden Gardens.

"We heard that even the match referee had booked his ticket to return home. But the groundstaff worked through the night and we completed the match. The referee called it 'black magic'; how they were able to get the court ready," says Enrico Piperno, the non-playing captain of the Indian team then. "But because the ground was so soft, it completely nullified the pace of Switzerland's Marc Rosset (who had won the Olympic singles gold the previous year) and Jakob Hlasek. Leander and Ramesh Krishnan beat them in the doubles and then Ramesh won the reverse singles," recalls Piperno.

But the glory days of South Club were coming to an end. Following the win over Switzerland, India would win just two more ties at the club - against lowly Hong Kong in 1995 and New Zealand in 2003. Their last match against a world-class opponent - Sweden in 1996 - ended in a 5-0 loss.

The loss, both in terms of hosting opportunities and actual results, seemed to parallel the club's own fortunes. "Grass is dying. No one plays grass anymore," says former Davis-Cupper Jaideep Mukherjea. "The maintenance is tough and you can't play through the year. You can't play during the rainy season or when the grass needs to grow. The club's income depends on people being able to play," he says.

That's why the Club only has six grass courts, where it once held 18 - the others replaced by synthetic and clay courts and now a swimming pool. The pitch on which India upset the Italians in 1985 now lies underneath a hard court, which, in turn, is buried under the scaffolding for the temporary seating for the latest tie. The club doesn't produce talent anywhere close to how it used to. Even the otherwise genteel club buildings bely the less than savoury going-ons in its premises.

"South Club is going through a bit of a character transformation," says Kumar. "This is a dying breed of gymkhana clubs. The club becomes what it's members are. If the members are badmaash (dishonest), then that's how the club becomes. What helped South Club was the fact that we weren't a political club. The focus always used to be tennis. The saying used to be that you couldn't allow a member of the Maidan Club to become a member of the South Club. Because that would bring in contested elections," he says.

There's plenty of politicking going on now though. Club president Rajat Majumdar was an accused in the Saradha chit fund scam and he in turn had filed an FIR against his predecessor Jaideep Mukherjea, accusing him of taking a kickback over a sponsorship deal earlier.

Even the anticipation of hosting its first Davis Cup tie in 16 years is tinged with the worry of what lies ahead. "The format of the Davis Cup is going to be completely different. Even if India qualifies to the World Group, we are still not going to be able to hold matches here. The finals are all going to be played in one city (Madrid in 2019). How are we going to keep spectators interested in watching matches here," wonders Zeeshan Ali, coach of the Indian team, who learned to play at the South Club.

All that can wait. No one is looking anywhere else right now. For the moment, all eyes will be only on the lush-green grass as India look to pull off yet another upset here. "South Club is already home to so much of history. It would be wonderful to add to that," says Ali.