Chennai: Tennis capital of India
CHENNAI: Minutes before the start of the singles first-round match between top seed Alison Riske-Amritraj and Anastasia Gasanova at the WTA Chennai Open 250 on Tuesday, presenter Charu Sharma said Chennai had always loved its tennis.
After all, it is referred to as the ‘tennis capital of India’. The Krishnans – Ramanathan and Ramesh – and the Amritraj brothers – Vijay, Anand and Ashok – put not only the city, but also the country on the tennis map.
This was much before the ATP Chennai Open – it was then called the Gold Flake Open – came into existence in 1997.
Tennis might not have earned such respect here if not for their monumental on-court contributions.
A teen sensation in the 1950s, Ramanathan first turned heads when he won a college tourney at Loyola.
There was no stopping him thereafter. After becoming the first Asian to clinch the boys title at Wimbledon in 1954, he remained among the elite at the senior level for over a decade.
Besides making semi-final appearances at the All England Championships on two occasions – 1960 and 1961 – he led India to five Inter-Zonal finals in the prestigious Davis Cup.
In what was a ‘like father, like son’ moment, Ramesh Krishnan replicated his dad’s feat of winning the junior title at Wimbledon, in 1979.
Apart from reaching the men’s singles last-eight stage at Wimbledon (in 1986) and US Open (1981, 1987), he played a pivotal role in India’s run to the Davis Cup final in 1987.
Then came the Amritraj brothers. Vijay progressed to the Wimbledon (1973, 1981) and US Open (1973, 1974) quarter-finals twice each while being an integral member of the India teams that competed in the Davis Cup finals in 1974 and 1987.
Post retirement, Vijay continued to popularise the sport in TN. Twenty five years after playing an instrumental role in bringing ATP Chennai Open to the city, Vijay, the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association president now, has turned his dream of hosting a WTA 250 event in his hometown into reality.
Meanwhile, Anand was also an important player in India’s 1974 Davis Cup team. In 1976, Anand combined forces with Vijay to enter the Wimbledon men’s singles semi-finals. Ashok also won the World Team Tennis Championships in 1978.
The legendary Leander Paes and Somdev Devvarman too share a special link with Chennai – both spent their early tennis years in the city.
Among the current crop of men’s singles players from TN, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran stand out, but both have faded in the recent past.
When it comes to women players, we are yet to open our accounts on a high note, after the retirement of Sania Mirza. The champ from Hyderabad was the first Indian player to enter the top 100 of the WTA singles rankings and bag a WTA singles tournament.
She was also the first woman player to be seeded in a grand slam event. The post-Sania period is a pain point that has been acknowledged by Vijay Amritraj, and evidenced by the fact that the top two women players in the country, Ankita Raina (ranked #1 nationally), and Karman Thandi are the only Indians in the singles main draw.
Moreover, there is no ‘local’ or rather Tamil representation in both the singles and doubles main draws.
But, Amritraj wants to show the next generation of women players, especially from the State, that it is possible to excel at the highest level.
Hosting the WTA Chennai Open could well spark something special for women’s tennis in the region. If the WTA tournament becomes an annual affair, it can help Chennai reinvigorate its reputation as the tennis capital of India.