Aces from the past

Aces from the past

As Bangalore gears up to host its first Davis Cup tie in 28 years, here’s a lookback at the City’s previous trysts with the event and its meetings with champion performers from different eras

It is peak summer in Bangalore but the weather is balmy. At the Bangalore Tennis Club in Cubbon Park, India’s Jaideep Mukerjea is involved in a nail-biting tussle against Australia’s Dick Crealy in a bid to hand the hosts the opening initiative in the 1970 Davis Cup Eastern Final.

After losing the opening two sets, Mukerjea produces a spell-binding comeback to stun Crealy. Nearly an hour later, Mukerjea’s team-mate Premjit Lall too is made to sweat under the May sun by Ray Ruffles. But drawing inspiration from Mukerjea’s sizzling fightback, Lall keeps his cool in a thrilling decider, winning it 14-12 as the Indians break the day with a handy 2-0 lead.

During the course of the action-packed day, the fans’ attention is also drawn to two other stars in their midst — Indian cricket great Mansoor Ali Khan and his Bollywood star wife Sharmila Tagore.

“Oh, what a sight it was!” recollects Ramaswamy, the current joint secretary of the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association, who worked as a linesman during that match.
“At times it was even too distracting for us. They had just got married and were the toast of entire India and for us to see them was really great. Everyone just went mad seeing them. It was one the special moments of that Davis Cup tie,” adds the veteran on the contest won 3-1 by India.

More than four decades later, Bangalore is gearing up to host another tie, this time against Indonesia. The scene has changed vastly in the period during which two more Davis Cup ties came to the City, giving the fans here an opportunity to witness some of the big names of Indian tennis but memories of the first tie are still fresh in old-timers’ minds.

“It was the first Davis Cup tie held in South India and we could not have expected anything better,” says Ramaswamy. “I still remember we guys setting the clay court on fire in order to help it dry faster after a strong spell of rain. Incredibly, it rained only at the Cubbon Park area of Bangalore! It seemed as if even the rain wanted to witness the drama.

“The crowd had packed the temporary stands. Jaideep and Premjit played some incredible tennis, pulling off magical wins. Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila added a touch of glamour to the occasion. In total, it was a perfect Davis Cup debut for Bangalore,” gushes Ramaswamy, his heart swelling with pride and emotion.

Two years later the city folks got to rejoice once again as they hosted the Davis Cup for the second time, against the same opponents Australia. While the crowd thronged the venue in numbers, the happiness quotient was not of the same level as the hosts were drubbed 5-0.

Amritraj brothers Vijay and Anand, who were cutting their teeth in international tennis, and the doubles pair of Lall and Mukerjea, failed to match the Aussie firepower as the Indians were dusted off rather comfortably.

The two ties, however, changed the landscape of tennis in the South, especially Bangalore. Buoyed by the success, the Bangalore Tennis Club took wings as the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association and work began in constructing permanent stands.

The stands were completed in 1976 and after nine years, the Garden City played host to the then kings of tennis – Sweden. Although India were outplayed 4-1, the then secretary of KSLTA G K Sangameshwar feels it is the best tie the country has ever hosted so far.

“Mats Wilander, Anders Jarryd, Stefan Edberg and Joachim Nystrom represented Sweden. Wilander had just won the French Open and Edberg – 19 years and poised for greatness – was the reigning Australian Open champion. In fact, the entire squad was ranked within the top-15. To top it all, they were the defending champions and one of the best sides in the history of tennis,” says Sangameshwar.

“While Vijay stretched Jarryd, Wilander was too good for Ramesh Krishnan. Coming into the tournament as a four-time Grand Slam champion, he showed his class. He just dominated Ramesh from the word go. He was simply superb.

Sweden had wrapped up the tie by the second day, claiming the doubles rubber too against the Amritraj brothers but in the reverse singles, Vijay scored a point for India, defeating Wilander.

“I still remember the time when the All India Tennis Association offered the tie to us. I was the only one attending the meeting and without any hesitation in my mind, I straightaway agreed to it. I came back home and informed the KSLTA executive committee and they threw their weight behind me. It was the start of a beautiful journey.
“I immediately rang up Vijay (Amritraj) and he wanted us to lay grass courts as the Swedes were unstoppable on clay. With Bangalore located 3,000 feet above sea level, the ball would loop a lot more and the Indians wanted to exploit that advantage. We just had three months to prepare the surface but we pulled it off. It all went off without a hitch,” says Sangameshwar.

Preparing the court was no easy task though. After the type of grass was identified, them, laying it proved to be a herculean task as KSLTA did not possess heavy rollers and importing them would have costed lot of time and money. Sangameshwar immediately called up his friend C Nagaraj, the then secretary of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, asking him to lend the heavy rollers.

“Nagaraj just told me, ‘Sanga, Bangalore is going to host such a top event, I’ll be happy to be part of it in some way. Take them (rollers). We worked day and night and everyone was impressed. Nearly, every important personality in Bangalore was there to witness the action.

“The stadium could hold around 8,600 spectators and it was packed to the rafters. Controlling them was a big challenge. Lots of people from Chennai and Hyderabad had come to witness the action. It was fabulous. Sweden apart, the Indian team too had heavyweight names in Vijay, his brother Anand and Ramesh Krishnan. Vijay, Anand and Ramesh are legends of Indian tennis. That’s why I say, even though we lost, it is the best Davis Cup ever to be held in the country,” Sangameshwar says.

Ramesh, despite the two singles losses, echoed Sangameshwar’s views. “Sweden was the best team in the world then. All four players in the team were ranked within top-10 singles players in the world. Wilander had won at Roland Garros that year and was one of the top players in the world. Plus Sweden were the defending champions. We had no chance against them,” says the touch artist.

Memories of those days are certain to be rekindled when Bangalore stages the Davis Cup tie in the coming weekend after a 28-year-long hiatus. For the old-timers who will make it to the KSLTA Stadium again, they will witness the change in courts, the personnel and the game overall while for the modern generation, will get to see the last few swings of veteran Leander Paes on the Davis Cup stage.

Of course, they will also see the current and the next generation of Indian tennis – with Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri featuring in the Indian team. Indonesia are a world apart from the likes of Australia and Sweden, but hopefully, they too will serve up a memorable affair.

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