Vijay Amritraj was part of the famed ‘ABC of tennis’, along with the legends Borg and Connors. He knocked out biggies such as Rod Laver on grass and reached the quarterfinals of two Grand Slams--Wimbledon and US Open--in 1973. In the next year, the young, lanky player from Chennai went on to beat the then-French Open champion and World No. 4 in the US Open—Bjorn Borg.
In 1980, he reached a career-high world ranking of 16 in the singles, making him India’s highest-ever ranked singles player. There was more to come, but not from tennis.
In 1983, Amritraj played a cameo in the James Bond film Octopussy, and later, had a role in the Star Trek series. “Not many can say that. Not even Federer,” he grins.
As the Road to Wimbledon—a programme to drive awareness about the Championships, encourage young people to play the game and promote grass as a playing surface— kicks off its sixth edition in India, the tennis legend was in Delhi as part of the Rolex Testimonee, a group of achievers associated with the watch brand, which is Wimbledon’s official timekeeper. “If playing at Wimbledon doesn’t motivate you, then you should go to the movies and enjoy yourself,” quips Amritraj in a free-wheeling interview with Forbes India. Edited excerpts:
Q. How many years, if not decades, do you reckon we have to wait to see an Indian play Wimbledon or any grand slam singles again?
I don’t know. I thought it would happen a long time ago. To be honest, I thought I was opening up the doors for others when I played. I suppose like everything else, we have to buy that time and wait. If I look at Wimbledon today, and don’t see Indians playing regularly in the tournament or even at the World Group in the Davis Cup…it pains me. India belonged in the World Group of the Davis Cup regularly. But we are not there. Till this day, since I retired, I have the highest number of ATP tour titles than any other Asian. So it’s hard to look at these things.
Q. So what went wrong with Indian tennis? We had some bouts of immense talent and promise when it comes to playing singles…
The honest answer is I don’t know what went wrong with the Indian tennis. It’s hard to put a finger on it. Take Yuki [Bhambri] for example. He won the Australian Open juniors, was the World No. 1 in juniors, but he didn’t make a mark in singles yet. Hopefully, he is still young and will be able to do it. Prajnesh [Guneswaran] is 29, and has had a good run recently. Hope he continues, and this is what I am hoping from the present crop.
Q. But don’t you think 29 is not ‘that young’ in a game like tennis?
Not really. Indians tend to physically mature later. What an Indian might do at 24-25, a Westerner may do at 18-19. We are usually physically weaker than Western athletes, so we have to give ourselves another five or six years. That’s okay. Nobody is seeing any rush here. But do it at some point.
Q. Tennis has transformed into a power game…
Yes. It has become very physical. It has got a lot to do with the fact that the balls are heavier, courts are slower, the equipment has become aerodynamic, and the players have become much bigger.
Q. Some commentators reckon that cricket has killed tennis in India. What’s your take?
Cricket has absolutely nothing to do with it. We can find all kinds of excuses, but there are none [laughs].
We have enough enthusiastic kids playing the game. And unlike when we grew up, today there is more interest and knowledge. These kids know that if you are good enough, you can make a profession out of it. You can go to a college. We didn’t know these things back then. We were flying blind.
The desire, the work ethic, the commitment, discipline, coaches, sponsorship…everything goes into one big pot to bring out one great player. But if he or she doesn’t quite have the commitment or desire to make it big, and when playing becomes work, then it’s difficult. You have to give yourself to tennis and sacrifice all else.
Q. Maybe there are not many sponsors at the grass-root levels in tennis…
Within the aspect of the number of players who play tennis pro rata, there is probably enough sponsorship. It’s incredible to see other sports that have made a difference to the sponsorship gambit. Look at kabaddi or wrestling.
Every sponsor should also feel that they are getting their money back. And it only comes when you do well in your sport. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, but you have to compete at the high level to give them the visibility they want. Nobody is going to throw a few crores at you if you are going to the movies every day. You just can’t do that.
Q. Tennis takes a lot more years than maybe cricket to make a star out of you…
At the end of the day, consistency is important, otherwise your ranking suffers dramatically. Team sports are different. Tennis is just about me and you. You play well, you win; I play well, I win. You can’t pass the buck. That is what I like most about tennis. You can’t blame others. If you lose, India loses.
Q. How did you keep yourself motivated? In your time, the matches were longer and competing at the highest level, the situation was more tiring than it is now…
The motivation comes from an overwhelming desire to win. There is no runner-up here. You are trying to be the best, and if you have to win, then you need to give everything that you have. So your desire drives your work ethic. Today, youngsters have more access to opportunities than we did. When I left India for the first time, I left with three pounds to travel overseas.
Q. Do you reckon that the youngsters do not have the fire in the belly to succeed because there are so many distractions now?
There are, in fact, distractions. No questions about that. But if this ability to play at Wimbledon doesn’t motivate you, then you should go to the movies and enjoy yourself [laughs]. Every parent wants the best out of her child, and my mother made me what I am in spite of overwhelming odds. I always say that it’s 98 percent her effort that I am here. Parents have a huge role to play in shaping the career of their kids. Many of these kids are under 14, and they have friends and other interests. How do you focus them back into tennis? It’s not easy. But at the end of the day, if it was easy, everybody would have done it. But I am still optimistic.
Q. So can India reclaim the glory?
I always look at the cup half full.
Q. But that can happen when we start playing singles. India has had some terrific doubles player but we fare badly in singles.
Well, everyone starts the game with singles. But after trying for a couple of years, you tend to feel that you can’t do it. But if you love the game, and you want to make a good living out of it, then doubles is a good avenue to it. And you can elongate your career. You play 20-25 tournaments a year in doubles. If you are good enough and are able to play consistently with one or two partners, you can make a very decent living.
Q. But doesn’t that show that the fire in the belly is missing to make it big in singles?
I don’t know if it’s a lack of desire or that they themselves feel like can’t quite make it to singles. There is nothing wrong with that—but we need to find someone else who can. We haven’t had anyone like that from this generation.
Q. Does grass happen to be your favourite surface?
I have had very good success on grass. But I have also had good success on clay and indoors.
Q. And what about success in movies?
Yeah. Not many people can say they were in a Bond movie, a Star Trek movie and played Centre Court at Wimbledon. Not even Federer [laughs]. I have enjoyed what I have done. I think perhaps I was a bit unlucky to not have won Wimbledon, especially when I was in a position to win.