South Club and tennis: Still love-all at 100
South Club was birthed because two men were denied a chance to play tennis. It is a story Jaidip Mukerjea, the club’s president, loves telling.Updated: Feb 15, 2020 10:13 IST
Asked for his fondest memory of the Calcutta South Club, Ramanathan Krishnan listed four.
“I went to South Club first in 1950 when I was 13. To go to the main centre of tennis in India was a thrilling experience,” says Krishnan, the only Indian to have played two Wimbledon singles semi-finals.
Krishnan, who will be 83 in April, had then come to play the junior nationals. Three years later, he won the open senior national championships at the club. “I beat Australia’s Jack Arkinstall,” he says, over the phone from Chennai. That was the first of six.
“In 1959, I beat Barry MacKay (USA No. 1 in 1960) in the Asian championship. And, of course, those Davis Cup ties…the most memorable of which was the one against Brazil in 1966.”
The 3-2 win that took India to the final—then called the Challenge Round—against Australia, was one of the many famous Davis Cup ties the club, which turns 100 this year, has hosted. No one knows the exact date the club was founded, but the 100th anniversary celebrations will be held at the club on February 15.
It was from the club that the Indian tennis association once operated as did the body that ran the sport in Bengal.
Rejection and a birth
South Club was birthed because two men were denied a chance to play tennis. It is a story Jaidip Mukerjea, the club’s president, loves telling.
“It was 1918 or 1919 when two Bengalis were cycling past the Woodburn Park when they saw a game of tennis. They inquired if they could play. They were told they couldn’t because the matches were being organised by the Punjab Club. These gentlemen were Ganesh Dey and Anadi Mukherjee, two of the founders of the South Club; Aukhoy Dey was the third.
“Dey and Mukherjee spoke to JM Sengupta, later mayor of Calcutta and club vice-president, who helped lease land for two courts in the same park. That is how it started. Soon, the British started coming here,” says Mukerjea, whose first tennis lessons were at the club in 1953 when he was 11.
Called the Calcutta South Club because a Calcutta North Club existed, the single-storey club house with its red tiled sloping roof is an anachronism in a posh south Kolkata locality of high-rises, high-end stores, a mall and a college.
“The South Club is as much a heritage institution as the Eden Gardens. Places of pilgrimage,” says Raju Mukherji, the former Bengal and East Zone cricket captain and author of ‘Eden Gardens Legend and Romance.’ “South Club members were affluent people who back in the day would be called the gin-and-tonic brigade,” he says.
“Entry to all bars and dining rooms wearing sandals and sports shoes are not permitted,” reads a rule on a board near the entrance. Dhoti and kurta is allowed but wearing a kurta with pyjamas or trousers would be a sartorial double-fault.
On its courts, film star Uttam Kumar and Nobel laureate Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee have played.
There are five hard courts, six clay courts and six grass courts. “There aren’t too many clubs in the world that has all the surfaces,” says Mukerjea.
Till 2012, the club had 12 grass courts including the showpiece Centre Court which was praised by Bill Tilden, the first from the USA to win Wimbledon.
“The grass courts were as quick and fast as Wimbledon. I never saw a bad bounce,” says Krishnan.
Tilden was among the rush of top players who made South Club part of their itinerary. A France team led by former world No. 1 Henri Cochet visited in 1929. Roy Emerson, Frank Sedgman, Jack Kramer’s professionals, Bunny Austin, Bob Hewitt, Fred Stolle, Nikki Pilic, Alex Metreveli, Manuel Santana, Illie Nastase, Tony Trabert, among others, have played at the club.
“Those days, there was no indoor tennis as such. So, after the European circuit ended, India and South Africa were two places you could play in when it was winter in the northern hemisphere. Players from the Soviet bloc didn’t want to go to South Africa so they came here,” says Mukerjea.
Sometimes they would meet their match in Kolkata’s trio of Mukerjea, Akhtar Ali and Premjit Lall.
“I can’t forget the tennis Jaidip played Nikki Kalogeropoulos of Greece en route a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win. His swagger; Ali’s backhand slice and court craft; Lall’s pigeon-toe gait and booming serve...we couldn’t wait for the winter season to begin,” says Sujoy Ghosh, chief operating officer of Bengal Tennis Association (BTA).
Their presence meant the tradition of top players at South Club which began with Dilip Bose and Sumant Mishra in the 1940s continued till the 70s. Bose was the first Asian champion, in 1949, at this club. Mishra was his Davis Cup teammate, India captain and national champion.
In 1972, Mishra’s son Gaurav beat Krishnan at the club making them the first father-son pair to win the national championship. The Krishnans emulated them when Ramesh Krishnan won his first national title, also at South Club, in 1977.
Davis Cup tales
With grass being India’s favoured surface, South Club was the preferred Davis Cup destination. So, India hosted Brazil here on December 4-6, 1966. Mukerjea opened with a straight-set loss to Thomaz Koch but Krishnan levelled the score by beating Jose Edison Mandarino.
“After the first day, Akhtar (our coach), Jaidip and I were in my room at the (Oberoi) Grand Hotel when Akhtar came up with the idea of ditching the regular pairing of Premjit and I for Jaidip and I. Akhtar said Jaidip could play beautifully on the right court because they had played once. In a tense situation, we felt Jaidip was a better bet than Premjit,” says Krishnan. “We didn’t even tell Premjit. The rules said, one hour before the match you could change doubles pairings. Premjit had come in tennis clothes but took the decision really well. And Jaidip rose to the occasion.”
Krishnan and Mukerjea won a five-setter. Then Mukerjea lost to Mandarino, meaning Krishnan had to beat Koch in the decider. “For many in my generation, Krishnan was the definition of sporting spirit,” says the cricketer Raju Mukherji, who watched the matches as a 16-year-old. “In the second singles, against Mandarino, he deliberately played a ball out because he thought the umpire had earlier called in his favour when the ball was out. Mandarino nodded in appreciation and the crowd applauded.”
Krishnan beat Koch 3-6, 6-4, 10-12, 7-5, 6-2.
“Sometime in the fourth set, his racquet became a magic wand,” he says. “Nobody in the crowd reacted after the win. Then, Koch started applauding Krishnan.”
The state government declared a holiday the next day.
The next time India entered the Davis Cup final, they beat defending champions Australia 3-2 in the Eastern Zonal final at South Club. Powered by Vijay Amritraj, Anand Amritraj and Jasjit Singh, India won after a record 327 games (tie-breakers were yet to be introduced.)
Another memorable Davis Cup win here came in 1993, against Switzerland in the World Group. Before Leander Paes and Ramesh Krishnan, it was the groundstaff who emerged heroes, readying the court after unseasonal rain.
Paes, the world record holder for maximum Davis Cup doubles wins who also learnt the ropes at the club, beat Jakob Hlasek but Ramesh lost to Marc Rosset. Paes and Ramesh then beat Hlasek and Rosset, before Paes wrapped up the tie with a straight-set win against Rosset.
“The Swiss had reached the Davis Cup final the previous year. They had won the doubles title at Roland Garros and Rosset won the 1992 Olympics singles title. So, they were overwhelming favourites. The tie hinged on one point in the second set tie-breaker when Leander made a spectacular return… This win gave us a right to play France at Frejus and we had a spectacular win there too. We won two deciding rubbers against more fancied opponents,” says Ramesh, adding that the victories made his farewell year on tour special.
If the 20th century was great for the club, the 21st has been anything but. Of the 15 Davis Cup ties the club has hosted, only two, including last year’s World Group tie against Italy, have been held since 2003. Grass is no longer the preferred surface for Indians.
The assembly line of quality players from the club has also spluttered out. After Paes, Zeeshan Ali, Syed Fazaluddin and Syed Saifuddin kept alive the tradition. That changed in the new millennium with Shivika Burman being the only one with an international career.
The club still lets out its facilities for coaching camps and for tournaments but once the home and nursery of Indian tennis, it is now neither.
“With the start of the Open era, top players stopped coming and you need stars to keep the game alive. Also coaching standards have dipped all over the country. Mostly, children are sent there for physical activity, nothing more,” says Mukerjea. “It was once the Mecca of Indian tennis. But for people like me, Akhtar, Naresh and Krishnan, who would often sleep at the club between matches, this still feels like home.”