Naresh Kumar, Indian tennis’ perfect gentleman, is no more. Kumar, 93, passed away at his south Calcutta residence on Wednesday after suffering from age-related complications. He is survived by his wife Sunita, son Arjun, and daughters Gita and Preah. Born on December 22, 1928, in Lahore, Kumar’s family later moved to Calcutta and he became an integral part of the city.
Impeccably dressed with his silver hair brushed neatly back, Naresh Sir (as he was fondly called) commanded respect without having to raise an eyebrow. He was someone who was equally at ease at the All England Club as he was at his “home”, the Calcutta South Club. A successful entrepreneur, a connoisseur of art, a benevolent man — his aura spread far beyond the tennis court. He has been a mentor to generations of tennis players, notably Leander Paes, to whom he was the beloved “Naresh uncle”.
He became the first tennis coach to receive the Dronacharya Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He was also an Arjuna Award recipient. Kumar knew his tennis like the back of his hand. He may not have won a grand slam title, but his knowledge of the game was phenomenal. And if you ever wanted to hear an anecdote with Wimbledon as the background, you didn’t have to look beyond Kumar. His meticulous understanding of the game helped him become a respected columnist too.
He played Davis Cup for eight years beginning in 1952, ruling Indian tennis along with the likes of Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaidip Mukerjea. He later served as team captain. Kumar played his first tournament at the Indian International Championships in 1949 where he reached the semi-finals. In the spring of 1949, he reached the final of the Northern Championships in England before losing to Tony Mottram.
Naresh Kumar with his protégé Leander Paes at a felicitation event at Calcutta South Club in 2016. Telegraph picture
Later that year he made the final of the East of England Championships. In 1951, he reached the finals of the Ceylon Championships at Nuwara Eliya but lost to Iftikhar Ahmed Khan. The same year he reached the final of the Midland Counties Championships at Edgbaston, England, losing to Australia’s Don Candy.
He won two singles titles at the Irish Championships in 1952 and 1953 and then won the men’s singles title at the Welsh Championships in 1952. But it was Wimbledon where his heart was. Even years after his playing days were over, he would religiously attend the Championships till the day his health permitted.
Naresh Kumar with wife Sunita Kumar at Queen’s Club, London, in 1962 Telegraph picture
As an amateur, Kumar played 101 Wimbledon matches. In 1955, he reached the fourth round in singles at Wimbledon which he lost in straight sets to the No. 1 seed and eventual champion Tony Trabert. In 1957, he won the singles at the Essex Championships at Frinton-on-Sea, England, and in 1958 he won his fifth and last singles title at the Wengen tournament in Switzerland. He played his final tournament at the Asian Championships in 1969.
The generally affable Kumar, however, showed his tough side when he knew what was best for the Indian Davis Cup team. One of those moments resulted in a teenaged Paes getting his Davis Cup break. One of his finest Davis Cup moments as captain had been in 1993, when India beat France in Frejus in the quarter finals. Both Paes and Ramesh Krishnan were in that team. Kumar hugging his team members after the victory was beamed to Indian homes by Doordarshan and remains an iconic moment in Indian tennis history.
(Written with PTI inputs)