By Nandakumar Marar
MUMBAI: Badminton was the fitness routine in monsoon months for Mervyn Fernandis in a distinguished hockey career. A World Cupper (junior and men category) with three Olympic and many international tournament appearances, he turned to tennis after a retirement from competitive hockey. “I realised the need for some sort of physical activity to maintain fitness since I was not going to play hockey regularly after Seoul Olympic Games 1988,” said the ex-India forward. “I had knee issues and ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament), so these two activities kept me in condition for hockey and helped me remain involved in sport afterwards.”
Racketlon is his latest passion (four sports played back-to-back and cumulative scores determining match result, starting with table tennis, badminton, squash and tennis in that order). Mervyn plays doubles in age group events, same for tennis where he competes in tournaments across India in the 60+ veteran category. “Singles events are tiring. I preferred doubles so that playing sport remains a pleasure.” Rafik Khotu was his doubles partner in the city, M Suresh
teamed up for all-India tournaments.
A top-class inside forward in hockey, reputed for body swerves, game vision and instinctive passing, he wore the national colours at the Junior World Cup Hockey in Versailles, the Olympic Games at Moscow, the World Cup in Bombay, two Olympic Games in Los Angeles and Seoul respectively. His career also included match-winning performers for Indian Airlines in domestic hockey tournaments and National Hockey Championships. The combative edge comes out in tennis doubles, winning veteran categories in Nagpur, Pune and Hyderabad with different partners.
Mervyn enjoys discussing how badminton in the junior days helped him at hockey growing up. “Hockey on grass in those days was not possible in the four monsoon months in Mumbai, so I played badminton. If you look closely, the reflexes, movements and co-ordination necessary for badminton are similar to the qualities needed in hockey. I picked up the basics under Francis Mascarenhas at the Ordnance Factory Ambarnath club where I grew up.” Training and tournament play in hockey to reach world levels made him aware of what his body was capable of and in turn helped him get better at tennis.
The Arjuna awardee in hockey and member of the 1980 Moscow Olympics champion squad said: “When I planned to retire after Seoul, hockey fitness was already there. I felt tennis is easier to adapt, especially doubles. You don’t need the fitness demanded to play hockey. The biggest advantage from hockey was anticipation on the tennis court. It came easy to me to guess which shot my opponent is going to play, down-the-line or cross-court just by glancing across
the net. Reaching the ball, hitting the angles also came easily due to conditioning developed over years on the hockey pitch.”
He got a chance to take a swing first time at the Indian Airlines Sports Club, Kalina, on tennis courts made using cow-dung. “I purchased my first racquet, began hitting the ball against the walls, such was my interest.” The facility has been renovated and a hard court is the normal surface for competitions across the city and beyond. Hyderabad was his first veterans’ tennis tournament outside Mumbai. “I was working in Hyderabad for IA (officiating as Deputy
General Manager and retired as Principal of the Flight Training School
Nagpur, Pune, Goa have been other places he travelled to, chasing down the ball and following his tennis passion. “The credit for me getting into tournaments goes to Ajay Lakhotia from Goregaon SC. He invited me to a private club event in Mumbai and encouraged me to enter events outside the city. I realised that playing in open tournaments was possible,” said the ex-hockey international, who started in 55+ age group and now plays in 60+ category.
Alongside hockey, he continued following other sports. “I am a fan of Prakash Padukone and Roger Federer is my favourite tennis player. There were no videos in the 70s during my hockey days, we followed our badminton players’ progress in the newspapers. India hockey camps at NIS Patiala helped us develop friendships with the badminton players camping there. National badminton coach (T P S) Puri knew I was interested and permitted me to hit on the courts. During the 1982 Asian Games, hockey and badminton players were together.”
The tennis Grand Slams televised live kept him in touch with the sports, alongside his hockey preparations. “We used to watch the Wimbledon finals late into the night. Watching tennis live happened last year at the Australian Open. I was present in Melbourne on a personal visit, enjoyed the matches as a fan.” The World Cupper and Olympian also caught up with tennis ace Leander Paes there. “He is close to the Indian hockey family (dad Dr Vece Paes was a member of the bronze winning men’s hockey squad at 1972 Munich Olympics) and playing men doubles. It was a happy meeting with another Olympic achiever (1992 Atlanta Olympics men’s tennis singles bronze).”
The badminton, tennis enthusiast is passionate talking hockey and what made him take up the sport in Ambarnath (outside Mumbai city) representing Ordnance Factory Ambarnath (OFA). “My dad (the late Joe Fernandis) was my mentor, my inspiration. In the olden days, putting the rival player off-balance was a valued skill. I learnt watching my father to hoodwink rivals. Another aspect of hockey which I trained for was deceptive passing, your opponent has no idea of the direction you will hit the pass. In whatever sport you play, deception is useful,” he said, adding: “In tennis when a rally is on, I employ the drop shot to catch rivals by surprise. It is tough for players on the baseline to change direction and reach the drop, in time for a return. Hockey is helping me here again.”
The Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana Racketlon in December is next in line. “Squash is the toughest among the four disciplines which make up a match. Table tennis I am familiar with, badminton I am training for and tennis I enjoy,” said the former forward, whose tricky moves and passing kept hockey fans on the edge of their seats once upon a time. “It may sound funny, like hockey I still get sleepless nights before a match visualising about my strategy on the tennis court. Youtube training videos helps me get better in serving, especially on the second serve. You never stop learning in sport.” This article and the image first appeared in www.stick2hockey.com.