Saturday School: The obsolete cow dung tennis courts

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Indian tennis was in full flow when the Amritraj brothers and the Krishnans entered the biggest tournaments worldwide. Years after they retired, a young gun named Sania Mirza would play at the Fateh Maidan in Hyderabad to commence a career that would see her reach the numero uno spot of the WTA doubles ranking. Despite their respective heroics, the one thing that would connect these Indian ambassadors to the tennis world were tennis courts made of cow dung.
As absurd and creepy it sounds to a first time reader, it would sound ten folds more disgusting to a player who knows he is scheduled to play on a cow dung court next. MK Sethi, a tennis court curator would lay down 100 cow-dung courts in Western Indian annually in September-October. Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Pune were said to have the best cow dung courts. While grass courts dominated in the Northern part of the country, hard, clay and cow dung courts were related with western and southern India.
The international officials would bracket these cow dung courts under the “clay” category. In truth, the cow dung courts were remarkably good for a player’s movement. The stress level on the knees and ankles were remarkably decreased although it would restrict the sliding movement. The people who were in dismay were the chair umpires who would find it difficult to find the mark of the ball in these “clay” courts. Moreover, the medicos for the players would also find it difficult to handle the player’s mental block and subsequent paranoid attack of playing on cow dung courts.

FABRICATION OF THE COW DUNG COURTS

Considered to be India’s “home” courts, the courts were prepared by laying down a sub-base over which 40-60 tons of Porbandar stone is crushed and levelled. Water is later added to the prepared base and allowed to dry. The first layer of cow dung paste which is made after mixing it with bamboo in a large drum is then spread out with mops. Each court requires almost 15-20 workers who would spread 200 litres of cow dung. Once it is dried, 3-4 coatings (twice a week) are laid down to complete a court worth INR 1,50,000. Furthermore, each court would take INR 20,000 for its maintenance.
The following year, when monsoon arrives, the courts swell up and become semi-solid in consistency. This would make it easier for the workers to remove and dig out the old layer. Later, 3 inches of limestone is then added. On this layer a thin layer of cow dung is applied. Upon its drying a thicker layer is added, levelled and dried to complete the court’s fabrication.

INTERNATIONAL PLAYERS’ DATE WITH THE INDIA’S HOME COURTS

Now a defunct tournament, the Indian Open saw many international players play on the cow dung turf in the 1970s. Vijay Amritraj, who won the tournament on four occasions said,
“I didn’t think it was crazy, but foreigners definitely did when they heard of it. They thought they needed a tetanus shot when they fall down.”
–  Vijay Amritraj
The cow dung turf was in action at the Indian Open right up till 1996. There are various big names in the tennis world who had a mixed bag of emotions playing on the Indian clay.
11-time Grand Slam winner Rod Laver was a member of the Australian Davis Cup team in 1969 when the Bombay CCI were the hosts. It seemed that the great Aussie did like the cow dung courts as he came back 17 years later to partner Zeeshan Ali in an exhibition match. Zeeshan Ali recalls that the Indian players would deliberately hit the balls deep in the court to risk the foreigners stretch and fall on the court.
“We’d be sitting there, waiting for them to come. Then they’d hear tales of germs and get freaked out by the smell. We’d put the fear of God in them the first year they came. Of course by the second year, they wouldn’t fall for all the paranoia.”
– Zeeshan Ali
Yet another Davis Cup match, yet another time India would be the hosts. Yet again the fear of cow dung courts would be instilled in the minds of the foreigners. It was the USA team that were against the Indian side who were all comfortable and merry walking on cow dung courts. Tom Gullikson, the then captain of the American team said:
“It’s going to be a formidable trip, and while I’m certain we have the players to subdue India, the main task is getting people down there and keeping them healthy.”
The States would go on to win the tie 5-0.
Tim Henman, former British World No.1 has an entirely opposing view to that of most players. He attributes his 1993-94 tour of India to be a turning point in his career. He would go on to win three of four tournaments he played in India. The one which he lost was in Chandigarh which was played on grass courts, while the tournaments he triumphed at were played on cow dung courts.
In 1997, a local tennis tournament was held. Due to unaffordable rates of red clay, the Nepalis built tennis courts that were a blend of clay and cow dung paste. This was how the first “Lahan Open International tournament” started.

THE DISCONTINUATION OF COW DUNG COURTS

In the transition from the Australian fast hard courts to the French clay courts, many players and fans would point out the fact that it is important to get the players some practice on courts that would allow for ideal transition from hard to slow courts. Cow dung courts were the perfect fit as they resembled faster clay courts. Yet these courts were discontinued due to the following reasons:
– Players often protested that they were not comfortable with the smell of the court.
– With the advent of US Open and Australian Open synthetic courts and their colourful surfaces on the TV screens, the demand for such synthetic courts increased.
– India’s main hub for the collection of dung were the cowsheds at Girgaon. These would later shift to the outskirts of major cities. While crossing borders, the bullock-carts that were loaded with large volume of cow dung were stopped by the intra-state border authorities and were not allowed any further on their paths.
As a result, India lost its “home” turf and all Indian courts were apparently converted to synthetic courts. Much later, in one of his abroad trips, Ramesh Krishnan was asked, “Do you guys really play on court with cow dung on it in India?” The 1987 Davis Cup finalist answered,

“IT’S ALL BULLSHIT.”


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