Nostalgia — that was the overriding emotion at the Calcutta South Club on Saturday as icons of Indian tennis gathered to reminisce about their playing days and the fond memories they have of the club that was once hailed as the Mecca of Indian tennis.
Ramanathan Krishnan, the grand old man of the game in India, was here with son Ramesh, on the occasion of the centenary year of the club. Sharp as a needle even at 82, Ramanathan talked about the three top coaches who had been instrumental behind making Calcutta South Club a veritable nursery of top tennis players of India.
“This was the Mecca of tennis. Apart from the superb grass courts, the club also had exceptional coaches. I can recall Sydney Mathews and then Dilip Bose. In more recent times it had been Akhtar Ali. They had been amazing. Also Ganesh Dey maintained the impeccable courts.
“We loved playing here. The spectators were also very knowledgeable,” said Ramanathan, who had played a number of memorable matches here.
The deciding rubber against Brazil in 1966, where he defeated Tomas Koch to take India to the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup, is perhaps one of the best matches played at the South Club. Jaidip Mukerjea, the president of the club now, was his teammate then.
Maintaining that he did not really follow Indian tennis very closely now, he added that to get top-class players you need a proper balance of coaching, training and tournament play. That he felt was lacking in the country.
While the others were busy obliging photographers and selfie-hunters, 72-year-old Jasjit Singh, spent a few hours on the grass courts, racquet in hand and giving his opponents a tough time.
Granted he was a far cry from the man, who in 1974, along with Vijay and Anand Amritraj, defeated Australia in the Eastern Zone final at South Club.
Was he thinking about that match, when he defeated Bob Giltinan in the first singles to give India the lead? “Not really,” Jasjit laughed. “It has been too many years.” That match still holds the record for the most games played (327) in Davis Cup history.
Jasjit had spent many years in the US where he also taught tennis. “What makes me sad is that the potential of players here is not tapped properly. Even today, India do not really have a structured programme to nurture players,” he said.
He has also written to the sports ministry some four years back, outlining a plan for training youngsters. “But I never got a reply,” he said.
Anand, too, spoke of that match against Australia, saying: “I have many memories of South Club, and one of the fondest was that match when we defeated Australia.”
Mahesh Bhupathi, the youngest of the stars who graced the podium during a chat show in the evening, said: “I have played a number of Davis Cup matches here. I love the atmosphere and will come back any time I get an opportunity.”
Naresh Kumar, Mukerjea, and Zeeshan Ali joined the Krishnans, Bhupathi and Anand for the chat show taking the audience through a mesmerising journey of Indian tennis.
Oldest among the luminaries was Naresh Kumar, who remembered his playing days in the club in the pre-Independence era. “I remember coming to the club, riding on a horse carriage, for free trials in the early 1940s,” the 91-year-old said.
“The club was known as the Wimbledon of the East. It’s been a great privilege to have witnessed the best of Indian tennis,” he said, mentioning that more than a dozen Davis Cup players including Leander Paes, have played here.
Zeeshan spoke about how his father Akhtar motivated him into taking up tennis instead of his chosen sport of cricket.