Vijay Amritraj: Having spectators makes a difference

Indian tennis legend Vijay Amritraj feels live sport has that physical element to excite someone sitting at home. It is education and entertainment.

“Right now we are trying to make the best of a bad situation. So we will have to live with it for the moment,” says tennis legend Vijay Amritraj.   -  M. Vedhan

Until recently, owing to COVID-19, top-flight tennis in 2020 looked like a non-starter. But the United States Tennis Association’s proposal – as reported by The New York Times — to move the Cincinnati Masters (August 17 to 23) to Flushing Meadows, the site of US Open, and follow it up with the Major (August 31 to September 13) have renewed hopes.

The idea is to ensure that foreign players remain at a single location in the US, thereby establishing a safer environment to compete. This follows the US government’s earlier decision to exempt tennis players from entry bans and New York state’s approval to allow sports competitions behind closed doors.

Sportstar caught up with tennis legend Vijay Amritraj to take stock of the state of the game.

Spectators watch Switzerland’s Roger Federer return the ball to Spain’s Rafa Nadal during “The Battle of Surfaces”, an exhibition tennis match played on a hybrid court that had clay on one side of the net and grass on the other. “Things happen during the course of a match, whether it’s a dodgy line call, a murmur in the stands or the odd double fault because someone screamed,” says Amritraj.   -  Reuters

 

The US Open is hopeful of holding a closed-door event. But with the prevailing travel restrictions and questions over player participation, would it seem like a Grand Slam tournament?

There is certainly potential for doing it without fans. But to just run the tournament we need close to 4,000 people. We are the second most international sport in the world after football. So you are talking big numbers when you consider players from 100 different countries, and then their coaches, support staff, etc. The singles draw itself is 256 (men and women) and then we have doubles. There will be a huge international group coming in and you have to test every single person every single day. It is not just about them coming for the Open and going back to the hotel. They have to eat somewhere, train somewhere. So they are basically out in the public in New York City. Then, you need to worry about going back to your respective countries after the Open without getting stuck because each country has its own regulations. So all of this has to be handled.

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Even if you are able to [conduct], will it be morally right? The Queens borough where Flushing Meadows is located is one of the worst hit regions in the world.

The other side of the coin is the fact that people are at home more than usual and there’s nothing they enjoy more than live sport. They are not going to the movies, the malls, restaurants. Why have the streaming sites done so well during the lockdown? Because they give people something nice to watch. You can play recorded matches and classics only that many times. Live sport has that physical element [to excite] someone sitting at home. It provides incredible service, both in the form of education and entertainment, for the public at large.

Vijay Amritraj with his brother Anand during the TATA Open Maharashtra tennis tournament at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune. “Maharashtra Open can comfortably run it without fans if they want to. They have the time and ability to do it,” says Amritraj.   -  R. Ragu

 

But will sport in empty stadiums feel the same?

The aspect of adrenaline comes from spectators and it makes a big difference. Things happen during the course of a match, whether it’s a dodgy line call, a murmur in the stands or the odd double fault because someone screamed. These could be turning points and they increase the adrenaline of the players. Davis Cup means so much because the crowd is very involved in the home-and-away format. So having fans is the number one choice. But right now we are dealing with bad choices and trying to make the best of a bad situation. So we will have to live with it for the moment.

The 2021 Australian Open is already thinking about limiting fans. So do you see a full-fledged tennis calendar take shape before a vaccine becomes available?

A vaccine will happen and it will create a great deal of confidence. But we are going to hobble through 2021 because even after the vaccine is out, delivering it to the entire planet will take time. Also, I think the virus is going to float around and we will have to live with it in smaller doses. For now, the two early events we need to be concerned are the Australian Open and Tata Open Maharashtra. Australia may let in 3,000 fans a day instead of say 30,000 and it also depends on the players’ comfort levels. To me it seems like the Aussie Open will happen. They have time to prepare. The Maharashtra Open can comfortably run it without fans if they want to. They have the time and ability to do it.

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World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, also the ATP Player Council president, expressed reservations about compulsory vaccination of Tour players. What’s your take?

In the United States, during the flu season, it is recommended that you take the flu shot. But I don’t take the shot because I am worried about the side effects. It is highly recommended, but not mandatory. In the case of a vaccine, because it involves something that is quite volatile and contagious, it becomes tricky. Say a player [without vaccination] comes to a tournament, mingles with the public and roams the locker room. The biggest worry is he may not even know if he is infected because he can have zero symptoms. It ill behoves of a tennis player [not to take a vaccine]. Under normal circumstances it is not mandatory. In this case, it would be absolutely wise to do it.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, also the ATP Player Council president, expressed reservations about compulsory vaccination of Tour players.   -  AFP

 

How do you rate the response of the tennis governing bodies?

For the ATP, WTA and ITF this is a first-time experience. In every team sport, players are under a contract to the owner. In tennis, there isn't such a thing. We are all independent contractors. If I play in Pune, I get paid. It’s that simple. The tournament has no further responsibility towards me except my welfare during the tournament. Nobody can tell me where to go and where not to go. I have the freedom to do exactly what I want to do.

Now everyone is saying ‘you have to protect players because they have no income.’ Technically, the job of the ATP, WTA and ITF is to just provide a good tour for independent contractors to play based on their rankings. They are non-profit organisations and don't have a relief fund of any kind.

They are basically statistical, logistical and organisational companies that direct the partnership between the players and the tournament directors. There is no other obligation. Morally, yes [they may have to help]; like how we all worked to create a player pension plan when I was the president of the player council. So for the bodies to have now put together a $6 million relief fund is terrific.