Wednesday 18 September 2013

Celebrating Twenty Years of Tennis in my Life

Raaghu was and will always remain the first person with whom I played tennis. This present year would be the time when we would have celebrated our 20th year anniversary of playing tennis. The game of tennis was a short lived affair and if my memory serves right, we played for about 3-4 years. I continued with other friends for another four years into the early years of this millennium. I loved cricket and equally I enjoyed playing tennis, and Raaghu was equally excited about playing with me. He was my cousin alright; my tennis mate was apt at that time.

We watched a lot of cricket and tennis together but when it came to playing, he preferred tennis and I don’t know why. He resisted coming to play cricket with us and was always game to play one of our versions of Grand Slam tournaments. Soon this bug caught on with a lot of my friends and we had to draw the ties, have a proper line umpire and what not.

There were two courts bang opposite to our respective homes; both the court lines drawn manually by me and Raaghu. There were no different grades of hard courts, clay was nowhere to be seen and grass? Well, let’s just say it was meant for the cows to graze or to be adorned in the rectangular empty plots. After having drawn the boundaries with accuracy, the space inside those brick red lines became our playing world. We played Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open – all on the same surface; the tarred roads of Bangalore and in our locality in particular.

This craze like I mentioned before caught on and attracted my peers like ants to sugar blocks. It was an amazing piece of entertainment and more importantly, an arena in which we felt we could play tennis with zero investment. Mind you, traffic was alien to us at that time and so except for few stares by pedestrians and fan gathering, the game went on regularly uninterrupted. Flood lights in the form of bright street lights were a boon and we played tennis under lights, just like Australian or the US Open.

There were three setters, five setters and doubles tournament – the frenzy went on for months and a few years. It was not a regular past time; it was seasonal which peaked with that of the professional tennis season, namely the Grand Slams. I felt for Mary Joe Fernandez losing the French Open to Steffi Graf in 1993 and immediately in the next tournament I can still recall the teary eyes of Jana Novotna (Navrathna, as I used to call her) on that Saturday evening of the Wimbledon finals. It is still etched in my memory. One of the reasons being, we started playing tennis during that time. 

When Sergei Brugera won a five set thriller against Jim Courier in the French Open finals, we also started to stretch our play and started playing five setters. The triumph of Jensen brothers in the men’s doubles and with growing popularity of our local tennis doubles game made its debut. We imitated many of the tennis players and the serve of Pete Sampras became my style, or atleast I tried hard to replicate. He won his first Wimbledon in that year and in the process went on to become my favourite player. It was Jim Courier again who lost the finals in consecutive tournaments.

I have won a Grand Slam; won many of the doubles matches and at the same time have lost too. Raaghu had his share of victories too. And that my dear friends, is how we consumed tennis outside of television - without racquets, without tennis overalls and most importantly without tennis courts. The only common equipment between the elite players and us were the use of tennis balls, and most of it was locally made.

Wilson was the biggest brand we aspired to have, and believe me twenty years ago if I were to be presented with a set of Wilson tennis balls, I would have kept it safely without letting air whistle through the vacuumed container and touch those precious tennis balls. However, there was no shortage of seriousness and we played till the last drop of sweat fell onto the ground. Yeah, there was no prize money, so what?

That was when I was nine years of age and I was hooked onto tennis just like I was crazy about playing cricket. The hero of Indian tennis back then was Leander Paes and Ramesh Krishnan. Krishnan retired few years later while Paes has continued and recently won his 14th Grand Slam title in doubles.

I don’t quite know what me remember this phase of our childhood. Maybe it was a conversation I had in the morning which made me realise how deeply I love sports and the short work I did with tennis. I have not played a tennis match in a long time. It’s high time I played a game of tennis on a proper court, holding a racquet with a hope of winning a game, a set and probably a match. 

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