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A LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE GRAND OLD LADY OF SW19

Many years ago, a leading sports journalist in the United Kingdom described Wimbledon as the ‘Grand Old Lady of SW19’. The phrase struck an affectionate note in my heart. Every summer since 1949, I have kept my tryst with the ‘Grand Old Lady’ and enjoyed every moment of her largesse. I can never forget the first time I set my eyes on her. Breasting a rise on my way from Southfields station on a sun-lit summer morning, I was stunned by the landscape which unfolded before my eyes. It was a symphony in green. On the right lay the famous Wimbledon grass courts, on the left the gently undulating sweep of a golf course complete with a pond with preening swans, and in the background a church steeple rising high in the sky on a hill. No high-rise buildings but homes nestled in the green of the trees. It was an idyllic landscape worthy of the great Constable’s paint brush.

Over the years, I have seen the Grand Old Lady struggle valiantly, trying to retain her looks and keep the ugly wrinkles of changing times at bay. The Committee of Management has addressed the onslaught of garish commercialism, unacceptable behaviour and vulgar dress with wisdom and rare aplomb.

The Church Road premises, the present home of the Grand Old Lady of SW19, was inaugurated in 1922 by King George V and Queen Mary. The frequent presence of Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother, the Prince of Wales and his brother, the Duke of York — then the rulers of the vast British Empire at its peak — brought an unmatched aura of pomp and regal splendour to the championships. It saw the birth of the famous and exclusive Royal Box situated behind the southern baseline. It has the best view of the Centre Court matches and is reserved for royalty, top office bearers of the All England Club, the aristocracy, outstanding achievers, famous personalities in sport and past greats of tennis. Till a few years ago, when the players walked on to the Centre Court, they would stop near the service line, turn around, and the men would bow while the ladies would courtesy to the Box. Some years ago, the Duke of Kent abandoned this practice. The Empire is no more, and the aura of the royals has faded. But the royal status of the Centre Court remains firmly entrenched. Memories of great battles between icons of the past linger and hang heavily in the air. Playing your first match on the Centre Court is an overwhelming experience. When I walked on to the Centre Court for my first match after reading Kipling’s immortal lines engraved on the wall of the waiting room — “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same” — I was really scared. Not scared about losing but scared about not meeting the expectations of the crowd. I made it! All the crowd wanted was your best effort and good behaviour. I remembered my coach, S.J. Mathews, at the Calcutta South Club, a Spartan disciplinarian, telling me before my departure to the UK, “If you get a bad call, Naresh, don’t even look at the umpire.” Over the years, this advice paid me rich dividends. Happily, all the Indian players were well behaved and made India proud.

My first match at Wimbledon in 1949 is indelibly etched in my memory. I told the transport office at Wimbledon to have me picked up at 10.30 am from my bed-and-breakfast lodgings in Mayfair. I was ready by 10.15 with my two rackets and an Air India cabin bag that had been collected for free after much lobbying when the landlady, a real toughie, screamed in awe to me, “Mr Kumar! Mr Kumar! There is a Rolls Royce waiting to take you to Wimbledon.” Rushing down, I opened the door, and saw a grand liveried chauffeur, who drew himself to his full height and announced in town crier style, “Mr Kumar, your Wimbledon car is here.” It was an enormous black Rolls Royce, and as soon as the chauffeur opened the door I dived in and lost myself in the cavernous backseat. My thoughts went back to the days when I used to steal a ride sitting on the rear footboard of a hackney carriage from Padmapukur/Lansdowne Road to Elgin Road where I used to jump off and run to the South Club, having managed to dodge the backward flip of the lone driver’s whip. I had come a long way, and my dreams were coming true. I was to play against Gerry Oakley, a tall, lanky, 20-year-old, who was then the English hope. The match was on Court No. 5. Oakley’s support team, led by the great British coach and incomparable BBC commentator, Dan Maskell, whispered their advice during the changeovers. It was tea time; I could see, in the neighbouring area, fashionably dressed ladies having tea, pecking at delicate sandwiches and buttered scones. The setting was truly aristocratic. I was brimming with confidence, having reached the finals of the North of England Championships at Manchester and won the doubles there, and also the doubles at Beckenham, the two major pre-Wimbledon tournaments. There wasn’t a single Indian watching the match. A few retired colonels from the Poona Horse (I presume) stoked the fire in my belly by saying patronizingly, “Shahbaash, Shahbaash”, during the changeovers. They meant well, but to me it sounded unbearably patronizing. I won and went through to the third round.

As the years flew by, attitudes changed. Indian players moved out of the colonial shadow and started to perform at much higher levels. The state of Indian tennis was healthy. The Krishnans, father and son, won the Junior Wimbledon in 1954 and 1979, respectively, while Premjit Lall (1958), Jaideep Mukherjea (1960) and Ashok Amritraj (1974) were runners-up. Then came the bombshell from Beckbagan, Leander Paes, who won the junior title in 1990. Paes hit the jackpot when, unbelievably, he won two Wimbledon titles in 1999, the men’s doubles and the mixed-doubles. Having selected him to play the Davis Cup when he was 16 years of age and helped him, this was the emotional summit of my 65 years at Wimbledon. Mahesh Bhupathi went neck and neck with Paes as over the years they harvested a total of seven Wimbledon doubles titles, three each in mixed-doubles and one in men’s doubles.

Ramanathan Krishnan struck his purple patch at Wimbledon in 1960 and 1961 when he reached the semi-finals of the championships. On both occasions, he lost to the ultimate winners — Neale Fraser in 1960 and Rod Laver in 1961. But for a weak service, due to a shoulder injury early in his career, Krishnan could well have won Wimbledon. I have no hesitation in saying that Ramanathan Krishnan was by far the greatest Indian player of all time. Few people know that Krishnan beat Laver in an India-Australia Davis Cup tie at Boston in 1959 and four times in other tournaments. Flashy and good natured, Vijay Amritraj could have won a weak Wimbledon in 1973, the year of the players’ revolt, when he missed an easy smash which would, if I remember right, have given him two match points and almost certain victory to move into the semi-finals. The Times said that “Vijay had missed a smash to glory”. Both Krishnan and I loved to watch Vijay play. I remember Krishnan telling me that he had never seen a player hit so many clean winners. Flooded with talent, Vijay’s Achilles heel was his fitness. Easy going by nature, he never buckled down to the intensive training and focus required to win a major title.

Jaideep Mukherjea and Premjit Lall were above average Wimbledon players who contributed much to the Indian presence at Wimbledon. Premjit was just a couple of games away from one of Wimbledon’s greatest upsets when he led Rod Laver by two sets to love and 4/2 in the third set. Laver wrote in his biography that with victory in sight, Lall choked and all the cement he sold for ACC got lodged in his elbow. Ramesh Krishnan was a cut above Mukherjea and Lall, and reached the quarter finals in 1986.

The Grand Old Lady had dolled up for her annual summer party in the third week of June. The flowers in bloom, the courts in verdant green, chilled cases of champagne, Pimms and beer in full flow, tonnes of strawberries and cream with a band playing old favourites, high tea in selective corners — all this makes up the full picture. Half a million would walk in through the gates during the fortnight to watch the matches live, while millions around the globe will be glued to their television sets. For the players, the royal presence with its pomp and splendour and the rich history by far overshadow the £25 million prize money. If you want to see the final live, get on your computer, tickets may yet be available for £3,000 each.