The Chennai Open is now a much looked forward to fixture in our city’s calendar. Tennis takes centre stage during the week preceding Pongal replacing the annual cricket test matches, which remain a mere memory. All the action of Chennai Open is centred at the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu’s Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium, designed in 1995.
Not far from here, in Egmore, stands the first public tennis stadium of the city, and in a not very good state of maintenance at that. Built in 1946, the Egmore stadium owes its existence to JPL Shenoy ICS who was Commissioner of the Corporation between 1944 and 1947. A keen sportsman himself, he played his daily quota of tennis at the Presidency Club of which he was a member. His ambition was however to ensure a proper facility for tennis where enthusiasts could play, students of the game could learn and top ranking players could compete against each other in tournaments or exhibition matches.
At that time, almost all the tennis courts of the city were in private hands. The oldest were those of the Madras Cricket Club laid out in 1883. By the time the Madras Lawn Tennis Association was inaugurated in 1926, several other clubs in the city had facilities but none of these was open to the public.
Having decided in 1946 that the city needed a tennis stadium, Shenoy moved quickly. He chose the Egmore playground set up by the Corporation in 1928 as a suitable site. He sought the military’s help for quick execution of his plan. Under the supervision of Corporation Engineer M Meeran, work on the stadium began on November 10, 1946 and was completed on December 30 the same year! The facility, with three tennis courts and concrete galleries that could seat around a 1000 people was declared open on December 31, 1946 by the Gaekwar of Baroda in the presence of the Mayor of Madras, T Sundara Rao Naidu.
The Madras (later Tamil Nadu) Lawn Tennis Association moved into the clubhouse that was built alongside. It was here that the Davis Cup matches were played in the 1950s, all of them featuring the Madras-based international tennis legend R Krishnan. In 1960s and 1970s, with crowds increasing, Davis Cup tournaments began to be held at a makeshift facility put up on the Island Grounds. The Egmore stadium continued to be used for training – this was where the Amritraj Brothers were taught the nuances by famed coach TA Rama Rao.
The rear of the stadium was where football, hockey and volleyball were played. With the SDAT constructing the Nungambakkam facility, tennis moved away from here forever. A vast hockey stadium was constructed to the rear and named after former Mayor M Radhakrishna Pillai. It overshadows the old tennis stadium parts of which, along with the clubhouse have been taken over by the Tamil Nadu Volleyball Association. What is left could do with better maintenance as part of our sports heritage.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated January 10, 2015 under Hidden Histories column