February 17, 2022
In the second round of Wimbledon in 1969, Premjit Lall from India was part of a brewing upset against Rod Laver, the world number one. Lall was up two sets to none and needed to win only one more set in the best-of-five-sets match. But, suddenly, his fortunes changed. In the third set, 28-year-old Lall “hurt his knee, missed two easy smashes and his chance was gone,” the Times of India reported. Laver took the third set, and then the next two, 6-0, 6-0, fighting back in incredible fashion.
“Boy, that was tough,” the 30-year-old Laver told reporters after the match. Laver would win all four Opens that year — the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open — making him the only tennis player to ever mark a calendar Grand Slam, for the second time (his first was in 1962). Few have come close since, but all know how difficult it is.
In more recent years, many can tell you about the performance of India’s Sumit Nagal against Roger Federer in the first round of the U.S. Open in 2019, when Nagal beat the tennis superstar handily in their first set. (Federer would go on to win the match.)
These matches have been etched into memory for many South Asians because if you look at the stands at Grand Slams, you’ll be sure to find fans from the subcontinent. The sport has found favor both in the diaspora and in the homeland, despite cricket’s broader, more fervid appeal, and the fact that no singles Grand Slam champion has emerged from South Asia. The pop culture apotheosis of this love, of course, is tennis legend John McEnroe voicing the travails of Devi Vishwakumar over two seasons of Never Have I Ever. The seemingly odd cinematic choice works, with McEnroe as the wisecracking narrator to the quick-to-get-angry teenager.
So what explains the subcontinental romance with the genteel sport?