In 1915, when Lewis Deane, fresh from his triumph at Calcutta at the Bengal Lawn Tennis Championships, reached the finals of the Punjab Championships at Lahore after a hard-fought five-set victory in the semis, he may well have been forgiven for considering that this tournament too was in the bag. Deane’s nemesis, Atkinson, three-time winner and defending champion, had been knocked out in the semis by a relatively unknown local twenty-three-year-old Punjabi boy, Mohammed Sleem.
On 13 February 1915, with an effortless 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 straight sets victory in Lahore over Lewis Deane, Mohammed Sleem became the first native Indian to win a major championship in India and stamp his name firmly in the annals of Indian tennis. His would be a journey that would inspire players for generations to come.
Born in Multan in 1892 into a wealthy family from Lahore, Mohammed Sleem was sent to Cambridge to study law by his father Sheikh Mohammed Umar. Sleem practised criminal law in England as a barrister, having been inducted into the Lincoln’s Inn in 1910, at the remarkably young age of eighteen.
Sleem spoke his mother tongue Punjabi fluently, and would become equally proficient in Urdu in the coming years given his successful law practice at Lahore. But English was what he was most comfortable in, given his upbringing and education, and England was where he would thrive in the initial years, first as a lawyer and then as a tennis player.
Tennis had been a passion from childhood and Cambridge gave Sleem the opportunity to hone his game. The first tournament at which Sleem played was the London Covered Court Championships at the Queen’s Club in April 1913, losing in straight sets to Alfred Beamish on the club’s wooden surface, in the second round. Repeated (but unsubstantiated) references talk of Sleem also participating that year at a minor grass court tournament at Craigside that he is supposed to have won.
The Punjab Championship in 1915 would be Mohammed Sleem’s first major victory. The following year he again beat Deane, this time in the semi-finals, over four sets and went on to defend his title, snuffing out the challenge of Sydney Jacob, another up and coming Indian player, in the final. In 1919, Sleem won his fifth successive title at Lahore, this time beating Jagat Mohan Lal in the final. Over the next decade and more, he would add three more championships at Lahore.
A force to reckon with
By 1921 Sleem had long been a force to reckon with in India, and that year he decided he was ready for the big stage. England beckoned.
That summer Sleem reached the finals of the Queen’s Club Tournament before losing to the legendary Japanese player Zenzo Shimidzu, ranked no. 4 in the world. Shimidzu had been a Wimbledon finalist the previous year, and would make the semi-finals again a few weeks later. Interestingly, Shimidzu was at the time working for Mitsui & Co. and was based in Calcutta.
Appearing then for the first time at Wimbledon, Sleem did well to get to the fourth round where he lost to American player Francis Townsend (Frank) Hunter. In a remarkable first set, Sleem, displaying brilliant touch tennis, had prevailed 6-2 over a stunned Hunter. But his more experienced opponent came back strongly to win in four closely fought sets. Hunter would go on to win an Olympic gold for the United States in 1924, reach three Grand Slam singles finals and pick up five Grand Slam doubles and mixed doubles titles before he turned professional in 1931.
Just a few weeks after his fourth-round loss at Wimbledon, Sleem joined Lewis Deane, Dr AH Fyzee and Sydney Jacob as members of the first Indian team to play the Davis Cup. The venue was Paris, the opponents the formidable French on their favoured surface, clay.
Sleem was at the top of his game and won both his singles encounters. Three-time French Championships finalist and France’s no. 1 player Jean-Pierre Samazeulth had beaten Sydney Jacob in the opening singles, but went down in straight sets to Sleem. Lewis Deane won both his matches and India breezed past the shell-shocked French into the semi-finals.
‘Big’ Bill Tilden, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, wrote in his book, The Art of Lawn Tennis, ‘India sprang a sensation by defeating France in their match in Paris. Sleem, Jacob and Deane showed great promise for the future.’ Tilden would go on to call Sleem the ‘best baseline player in the world’.
Two weeks later the semi-finals of the competition were played at Chicago in the United States, on grass. India lost 0-5 to the extremely powerful Japanese team. Notwithstanding the loss, this had been a superlative performance from Sleem and his teammates in their first-ever outing for the country, and it firmly put India on the tennis map.
Excerpted with permission from Advantage India – The Story of Indian Tennis, Anindya Dutta, Westland Publications.