US Open 2018: From Vijay Amritraj to Leander Paes, how Indians have created a legacy worthy of respect at Flushing Meadows

India's Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes and Sania Mirza all have wins here, with Paes perhaps the most successful of all. A look into how India has performed at the indoor hard-court Grand Slam.

Anuradha Santhanam August 27, 2018 08:13:58 IST
US Open 2018: From Vijay Amritraj to Leander Paes, how Indians have created a legacy worthy of respect at Flushing Meadows

India has a long history at the US Open, and although its more recent successes have dotted the last decade, its players have had good outings at the final Grand Slam of the year, and with consistent, strong results. Although Indian players have failed to fire in the singles in recent years, the doubles have been more than successful for a number of Indian players.

One of India’s first “famous” tennis players, Ramanathan Krishnan, was active on the circuit in the 1950s and 1960s, and was once among the world’s top 10 ranked tennis players. One of the earliest Indians to have success at Majors, Ramanathan had his best results on the grass courts of Wimbledon, where he made the semi-finals on two separate occasions, in 1960 and 1961.

Ramanathan made it so far as the third round to the US Open on two occasions, once in 1957 and another in 1959, before the advent of what is today known as the Open Era, where professionals and amateurs are allowed to compete against one another.

Nagercoil native Ramanathan was of course, most successful on grass, but in a competitive time — and a time when tennis watchers and followers in India were perhaps a fraction of the number they are in today, the senior player — who today, runs a tennis academy, truly made his mark.

US Open 2018 From Vijay Amritraj to Leander Paes how Indians have created a legacy worthy of respect at Flushing Meadows

Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek with the US Open men's doubles title in 2013. Reuters

His son, however, is perhaps more well-known to a larger audience. Active in the 1970s and 1980s, Ramesh Krishnan practiced a style of tennis much similar to his father’s, interestingly, a style in which they train younger players today: One touch tennis. However, Ramesh enjoyed far more success at the US Open than his father did, making the quarter-finals on two separate occasions — in 1981 and 1987. Like his father, Ramesh was very successful at the boys’ slams, winning two Majors titles as a junior — the French Open and Wimbledon, but not the US Open.

However, Ramesh was quite comfortable on outdoor hard courts: He made it up to Round 3 at the Australian Open on five separate occasions, in 1989 beating then World No 1 Mats Wilander. The 1980s were the heyday of American players on their home hard courts, and it is testament to Ramesh's skill that he made it to the final eight twice despite being unseeded on both occasions, and in 1981 even scalped a set off the top-seeded John McEnroe before going down to the then-World No 1 in what started off as a close fight. Ramesh made quite the habit of competing against top seeds, and in 1987 went down to the World No 2 this time: a certain Swede by the name of Stefan Edberg.

Interestingly, it was perhaps the lack of as powerful a serve as his rivals that Ramesh lost out on even bigger successes. Praised often for his tenacity, fans and pundits alike felt he lacked the big strokes of his counterparts. What he did have — that funnily enough, many of his American rivals lacked, was an all-round game.

Interestingly, Ramesh brought his own brand of American academy-style structured tennis to India

No Indian player has been as known in the eye of the world media as Vijay Amritraj, and indeed, the Indian former top 20 singles player was successful as both a tennis professional and as a commentator. Part of perhaps India’s “First Family of Tennis”, Amritraj has been one of the country’s most successful players in the singles, and enjoyed his successes early.

At only 20, Amritraj made two Grand Slam quarter-finals — at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1973. Up against the Swede Jan Kodes at Wimbledon, Amritraj pushed him to a tough five set match; Kodes would eventually go on to win the Championships.

At the US Open of 1973, the relative neophyte Amritraj went up against two of the biggest names in tennis history — no mean feat for even the seasoned of players. First, he went up against Rod Laver — widely considered one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the game. The Australian ace was obviously no stranger to hard courts, and in addition to his three wins on his home turf, was also a two-time champion at the US Open by this time.

It was the young Amritraj who took the seasoned former No 1 — across eras — to a tough five-set encounter, trumping him to proceed to the quarter-finals. It was here that he came up with another former World No 1 and another Australian, the great Ken Rosewall. Just for some perspective for readers who may not be familiar with Rosewall, he is the only player to have simultaneously held Pro Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces (1962–1963). At the 1971 Australian Open, he became the first male player during the open era to win a Grand Slam tournament without dropping a set.

While Rosewall eventually came out on top in that encounter, Amritraj had already sharpened his talent against some of the greatest in the game. He was also successful in the doubles, and made the quarter-finals on two separate occasions there too. Despite not having higher results at the US Open, Amritraj routinely beat former World No 1s in the USA: among them Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and McEnroe.

Amritraj came up yet again against Rosewall the following year, and yet again in the quarter-finals; this time, the Indian put up a fight to scalp the first set convincingly off his Australian rival, although yet again, he would be on the wrong side of the results. Interestingly, Rosewall went on to finish the tournament as runner-up that year, at the age of 40.

Indian tennis underwent quite a dry spell in the years prior, and although chronologically one could slot Ramesh after Amritraj, both father and son — Ramanathan and Ramesh — enjoyed extensive success.

And then came perhaps India’s most recognised name in men’s tennis: Leander Paes. An Olympic medal winner in the singles, Paes today is considered one of the best doubles players in the game, and now in his 40s, is still going strong. The Kolkata native was immensely successful even as a junior, and won the US Open boys’ singles in 1991; he remains, to date, the only Indian to have won that title.

The dates of Paes’ victories are perhaps the most concrete proof of not just his skill, but his absolute fighting spirit and endurance. With his former partner Mahesh Bhupathi, Paes made the finals of the US Open men’s doubles in 1999. Top-seeded that year, the pair dropped only one set en route to the final, before going down in straight sets in the end.

It is also proof of Paes’ skill that he enjoyed Majors success with a series of doubles partners. Pairing with Czech David Riki in 2004, Paes yet again made the finals, with a win over the Spanish pairing of Rafael Nadal and Tommy Robredo. Not to be deterred by being the runner-up, Paes would partner with Martin Damm in 2006, and the sixth-seeded pair beat second seeds Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi to win the title that year.

Interestingly, Paes has had immense success pairing with Czech players in the doubles. At the US Open of 2008, Paes paired with Lukas Dlouhy, with the two seeded seventh, to make the finals. The two were locked in an intense battle with the second-seeded Bryan Brothers, with the American greats winning in a tense 7-6(5), 7-6(10) battle. The scoreline should itself indicate how close that fight had been.

What has also marked Paes throughout his sporting career has been his fighting spirit. Only one year after finishing in the finals against the Bryans, Paes partnered with Dlouhy yet again, on this occasion seeded fourth behind his former partner Bhupathi, with partner Mark Knowles. Defeating their old rivals, the Bryans, in the semi-finals, Paes and Dlouhy trumped Bhupathi and Knowles to win what would be Paes’ second doubles title of five finals — strong stats any way they are ‘served’ up!

Again, in 2012, Paes saw immense US Open success upon pairing with Grand Slam winner and former doubles No 1 Radek Stepanek. The pair finished runners-up in 2012 — Paes at the age of 39, Stepanek at 33, to the Bryans — the greatest doubles pairing of all-time in men’s tennis. But never one to be cowed down for long, he won the tournament the following year, with Stepanek alongside him.

Paes has also had immense success in the mixed doubles, making five finals between 2001 and 2015, winning two. His most recent, the title win with Martina Hingis, is proof that at an age where most Open Era players have long since retired, he continues to fight the good fight. The Indian’s singular consistency across disciplines here makes him, statistically speaking, the most successful Indian in US Open history.

On the other side of that coin is his former partner Bhupathi, who won the title in his first mixed doubles US Open final with Ai Sugiyama in 1999, and then six years later, repeated the feat with Daniela Hantuchova. The year 1999 was perhaps the best at the US Open for Bhupathi, who partnered Paes to the runner-up position that year. Between that and his 2016 retirement, Bhupathi made three finals — in 1992, 2002 and 2009, with Paes, Mirnyi and Knowles respectively. The pair of Bhupathi and Mirnyi — one of the top in the doubles in their time, won their title in 2002.

One half of one of world tennis’ greatest all-Indian pairings, Bhupathi enjoyed his fair share of success at the US Open, but perhaps not with as much consistency as his former partner.

In more recent years, India has seen its biggest tennis celebrity enjoy her own well-deserved success. As much an icon for women’s empowerment as for women’s tennis, former World No 1 Sania Mirza enjoyed an excellent run in the women’s and mixed doubles with a variety of partners, and took home top honours in 2015 with former singles and doubles World No 1 Hingis — considered one of the most successful partnerships in modern day women’s doubles; together, the two won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open over the 2015-2016 seasons.

Just the previous year, Mirza also took top honours in the mixed doubles with Brazilian ace Bruno Soares and indeed, has won every Slam at the mixed doubles bar Wimbledon, where she has been a quarter-finalist on three occasions.

Interestingly, Mirza, who decided to focus on the doubles after repeated injuries sidelined her singles career, has done best in the singles at the US Open; the Hyderabadi ace, who was unseeded at the US Open of 2005, reached as far as the fourth round before tumbling to the top seed Maria Sharapova in straight sets.

Despite perhaps a dry spell in terms of singles tennis talent in more recent years, India’s run at the US Open has been quite strong. Indeed, it has perhaps been Paes who has carried the country at this specific slam with singular, repeated consistency like no other player from the country ever has.

Only on Saturday, Paes and his American partner James Cerretani made the finals of the Winston-Salem Open, an ATP 250 event. Perhaps the most talented Indian tennis player in the country’s history, the 45-year-old, when partnered with a big server, is at his best. With three wins in the men’s doubles and two in the mixed doubles, there is no doubting the immense talent the player has.

Now, perhaps, it is time for the country’s youngest talent to use these giants as inspiration — and with many of them boasting big strong serves, it may well be time that that baton begins to be passed.

The US Open commences on 27 August, 2018.

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