[In his heydays with his trophies, now 96]
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It was in 1984 that my colleague Mukunda 'invited' me to start playing tennis on CFTRI courts. And 'why not?' I told to myself, since it was an opportunity to try my hand in a sport my grandfather Subba Rao was renown for. The CFTRI tennis club had a few internal members, most of them played for fun and fitness only on weekend mornings. Since this was not a serious group a few 'outsiders' were also allowed to play. I did not take much time to learn the basic skills because of my cricket.
One such 'outsider' who started coming in the 1990s was septuagenarian Shama Rao, a relative of our No.1 player, Seetharama Rao. Just before this, Seetharama Rao had included me in the team to give some match exposure in a small tournament at Railway Institute where Shama Rao was a regular. I used to see this white-haired man of short stature frequently, walking by on the street side, but did not know anything about him. I was to play singles against the same man! It was a surprise to me that afternoon on the tennis court. He must have touched 70 at that time.
The match started. I took the first set from Shama Rao 6-4 and was happy. Old man who cannot run much, easy fish, I thought. In the next two, he made me run all over the court and magically, he became a magnet and whatever ball I sent back seemed to go straight to him while he just stood and punched his shots hardly making a mistake! It was awesome consistency from Shama Rao who won point after point and I made error after error and fully exposed all my lacunae. He won next two sets, may be 6-1 and 6-2 and took away the match, humbling this small fish! My tongue was out. My admiration for this man had begun.
When he started coming to our court regularly - as an honorary member whom everyone respected - it was a joy to me. Seetharama Rao had already told him that I was a grandson of Subba Rao. In fact, Shama Rao, along with Seetharama Rao, was among the few who had seen my grandfather play, before mid-1950s after which he had hung up his racquet.
Shama Rao used to walk the 3 km. from Krishnamurthypuram to CFTRI court. He played only when there was a place in doubles, otherwise he would just sit and watch. He wanted everyone to improve their games. He would point technical flaws and suggest corrections. This he used to do even when he was on court partnering either me or someone. He had the distinction of having trained Indian Davis Cuppers Vijay Amritraj and Anand Amritraj in their early days after their father Robert Amritraj saw Shama Rao's game!
Accuracy of shots and consistency were Shama Rao's forte. He used to tell me how he could hit a coin placed on the opposite court with his shot and he could aim the sideline or baseline with pinpoint accuracy. He used to send his returns very low which made the opponent make mistakes. He preferred the baseline and was a perfectionist. When I mishit a ball, he pointed to the sweet spot on his racquet "Take the ball here"! "Do you know how beautifully your grandfather played?" When he hit the ball, the 'plonk' was musical as the ball skimmed across.
He fondly remembered the numerous tournaments he won beating very good players - including Mohammed Ghouse who was a Davis Cupper later; defeating top seed P.A.Sheshadri of Chennai without conceding a single game. He was a regular in Railway Open Tennis tournaments in Bangalore and other places and also at other tournaments in Tiruchirapalli, Erode and Guntakal.
Another unique thing about him in his early days was that he played barefoot. He was fond of recalling how he won a tournament in Guntakal playing barefoot in very hot weather!
Shama Rao was of the opinion that the players in olden days were extremely skillful, possessed brilliant games, were plucky and tricky and that today's game is based more on power rather than skills. With wooden racquets one had better control of strokes and skills. There was a dress code in those days and the players on court were all in white dress.
He was able to play on our courts till he was about 85, but he continued to come for a couple of years more until his knees started to give him trouble. Either Mukunda - who lived close to his house - would drop him back or I dropped him back [on scooter]. His enthusiasm for the game remained unfazed and he would continue to give valuable tips to us even though he could not play.
I used to practice the Shama Rao punch at times to good effect but could not adapt the Shama Rao grip on a regular basis. The index finger was kept straight on the handle, which according to him added power to the shots! His forehands were deceptively fast and low, skimming just on top of the net either catching the opponent on the wrong foot or leaving no time to return. I was at the 'receiving end' in that early match and I can imagine how much more potent Shama Rao's strokes were during his prime! His fingers and palms were robust and strong and also revealed the hard work they had done.
Shama Rao was born in 1918, a typical Mysorean, simple and humble to the core. He started playing at the age of 12 and played on for the next 73 years. He started at Rao Bahadur Bhakshi Narasappa Tennis Club [RBNTC] which his uncle N.Krishnaswamy had started and culminated at CFTRI courts. RBNTC was closed down due to non-availability of playing equipment including tennis balls. Shama Rao's commitment to the game later saw to it that RBNTC was restarted and got back its glory while he worked for the Railways. He often prepared the courts himself to make tennis possible. Such was his dedication to tennis. He used to recall how difficult it was during the War years [1939-45] to get tennis goods and how they were also rationed. They all came from England [Slazenger, Dunlop and Spalding, to name a few brands].
Subba Rao had taken part in a tournament organized by RBNTC in 1933. See this cute little cup:
Shama Rao was a silent tennis legend of Mysore.
He is on his way to pay his electric bill - I was returning from there. 2006.
When he stopped coming and I stopped playing tennis, I would occasionally go and meet him in his old house. Once I took my friend Vinay Parameswarappa. 2009.
Same day as above - Picture by Vinay. Shama Rao was 91 and his hearing ability had further waned.
In 2011, my tennis partner Murali and I went to meet him.
In 2012 when I went again, he had become a widower. Every time I went, he used to say "I was just thinking of you. Come, come. It has been so many days since you came." His face would brighten as he held my hand in affection.