Wimbledon, the oldest Grand Slam and the only one still played on grass, holds great sentimental value for tennis romantics all over the world. The green turf, the pristine white attire, the Royal Box, the dress code, Wimbledon has staunchly adhered to its British traditions. It helps that the iconic grass of the Centre Court gave the sport some legendary tales – from Goran Ivanisevic, the unseeded champion to Roger Federer taking over the mantle of grass court greatness from Pete Sampras.
The Championships is testimony to the old world charm of the game, a charm that once put India onto the global tennis map. Tennis in India has a deep connect with the grass of the Wimbledon – it was here that an Indian first played a Grand Slam, it was here than an Indian reached an unprecedented semifinal in singles, it was here that an Indian pair won their first Major trophy together, it was here that India’s greatest female player made her name as a junior.
With Wimbledon 2017 set to begin on Monday, here’s a walk down memory lane of India’s fabled trysts with the Championships.
Sirdar Nihal Singh
The first Indian to play on the green turf at the Championships in England was back in 1908 – while India was still an imperial state. The son of Maharaja Sirdar Gulabh Singh, he played at the tournament in England for three years from 1908 to 1910, participating in both singles and doubles. His best performance came in 1910 when he reached the third round in singles and second in doubles.
Another Indian to play at Wimbledon pre-Independence was Sydney Jacob, who was a British civil servant. He participated in the Championships between 1914 and 1928 – a fairly long run. His best performance was a quarter-final appearance in singles in 1925 and reaching the men’s doubles semi-final in 1921.
In today’s times, it’s hard to imagine an Indian player seeded top 10 in the singles draw at a Grand Slam, let alone make the last four. But back in the 1960s, Ramanathan Krishnan, the trailblazer for Indian tennis, not only reached the highest seeding of No 4, but also made two straight semi-finals.
In 1954, he became the first Asian to win a junior Grand Slam title. In 1960, he became the first Indian to reach the semi-finals at a Grand Slam. In 1961, he beat Roy Emerson to make his second straight semi, losing to eventual champion Rod Laver. All these on the green lawns of Wimbledon. The magnitude of his achievement is such that no other Indian tennis player has bettered his singles record at Grand Slams, more than 50 year later.
The tennis genes were passed on to his son Ramesh Krishnan, who enjoyed an amazing run at Grand Slams himself. The younger Krishnan was the junior champion at both French Open and Wimbledon in 1979. In the 1980’s, he reached the quarter-finals at three majors. But his quarterfinal run at the 1986 Wimbledon is best remembered as it was the last time an Indian reached the latter stages of Wimbledon. He had overcome sixth seed Joakim Nystrom in the third round but lost to Slobodan Zivojinovic in the next round and couldn’t replicate his father’s run.
Vijay Amritraj, the Indian tennis great, and the man who has been a commentator for as long as we can remember, had quite the connection with Wimbledon, having played 18 consecutive tournaments between 1972 and 1990. He reached the quarterfinal stage at the Championships eight years apart, while being unseeded. In 1973, he lost to eventual champion Jan Kodes and in 1981, he gave Jimmy Connors a run for his money, taking two sets off him before losing in a five-setter. Amritraj has also reached multiple quarter-finals in the mixed doubles and the semi-final of the men’s doubles with brother Anand Amritraj.
Leander Paes continued the tradition of the Krishnans, winning the junior Wimbledon in 1990. But that was just the first of his six titles at the Championships, across men’s and mixed doubles. Paes holds the unique distinction of being just the second man after Rod Laver to win Wimbledon titles in three decades – the junior title in 1990, the men’s and mixed double in 1999 (with Lisa Raymond) and three other mixed doubles titles in 2003 (with Martina Navratilova), 2010 (with Cara Black) and 2015 (with Martina Hingis.)
The most memorable Championship trophy for India was the men’s doubles title in 1999 when Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in became the first Indians to win a trophy at Wimbledon in the senior category. That was the year of Lee-Hesh, where the pair reached the finals of all four Grand Slams, winning two of them. The duo were the tops seeds at Wimbledon and fought their way through all the rounds to emerge as champions.
A veteran of three Wimbledon titles himself, Bhupathi impressed at Championships in his junior days as well. He finished as the runner-up in boys’ doubles with Nitin Kirtane back in 1992. From then, he went on to win the men’s doubles in 1999 and the mixed doubles title in 2002 (Elena Likhovtseva) and 2005 (with Mary Pierce.)
In her autobiography Ace Against Odds, Sania Mirza spoke about how the idea of playing on the Centre Court at Wimbledon had taken root in her mind back in 1993, when she was barely seven years old. As it happened, Sania was playing there 10 years later, when she won the 2003 Girls’ Doubles title, partnering Alisa Kleybanova – the first Indian woman to win a Slam title at any level. Twelve years later, Mirza won her second of two titles at the Championships, when she won the women’s doubles title with Martina Hingis in 2015. While she hasn’t made it past the second round in singles and quarterfinals in mixed doubles, she still holds the distinction of being India’s only female winner at Wimbledon.
The latest Indian to join the illustrous list of Indian trophy-holders at Wimbledon is Sumit Nagal, who won the boys’ doubles title with his Vietnamese partner Lý Hoàng Nam in 2015. The same year that Leander Paes won the mixed doubles and Sania Mirza was crowned the women’s doubles champion (both with Martina Hingis) Nagal and Nam were seeded eight at the event and went on to capture the title at the Championships.