Nearly two and a half decades after he played his last match, he is still the player with the most tour titles from Asia. Since then he has gone on to wear different hats... commentator, UN Messenger of peace, talk show host with guests, including the current U.S. President Donald Trump, and running a charitable foundation.
In this chat with Sportstar, Vijay Amritraj talks about his early days in tennis, the memorable matches against some of the biggest names in the game and his work in front of the camera and more…
How do you look back on your career?
The first thing that comes to mind is being grateful for a long career both in tennis and beyond. I think it was a blessing very few people can claim. From where I was to where I am today, it is so unimaginable. It has been my greatest education. My mother and I talk about it all the time.
How did it all start and what was the turning point that made you think that a professional career was possible?
I started playing tennis for health. I was a sickly child and my mother was responsible for putting me into tennis for a specific purpose of being able to go to school and take an exam which I never was able to pass. All these thing were the difficulties I faced growing up. But my mom took it upon herself as her difficulties. The things she went through were not what a normal parent goes through.
There were three matches that literally made my career.
The first came in my final year in High School before my 14th birthday. They allowed me to play the Jain College tournament. I reached the final as a schoolboy and I played as a 19-year old medical student. I was 0-2 down, 9-8 (30-15) in the third. I ended up winning it in five sets in May in Chennai.
That kind of a win gave me the belief that maybe there was something in me.
The next one was the final of the National Championships in 1972. I had slit my finger and had six stitches on it six weeks before the tournament. We initially decided to pull out of the tournament. One week before, I started hitting against the wall and we decided to travel.
In the semifinal against Jaideep Mukherjea, who was number two in India, he was 5-3, 30-15 in the fifth set and I went on to win it 7-5. Anand and I then beat the number two team in doubles in the semifinals with a 6-4 win in the fifth set. That day I played 10 sets and my wrist was swollen after that.
In the final, I beat Ramanathan Krishnan in four sets. Then Anand and I won the doubles in five sets after an hour. Over the two days, I played 19 sets. That was the second match that put me on the stage.
The next one was in the third round of the US Open in 1973 where I beat Rod Laver in five sets.
These three matches made a difference to my career.
To this day, since the ATP rankings came and tennis went professional, I am the Asian with most tour titles.
Tell us about the role your mom played in your career...
For me, it was 98 per cent her effort and two per cent mine. She ensured I didn’t feel left behind. It was a challenge taking someone like me who was not healthy growing up as a child. Anand was as perfect as you could get. He was tall, healthy, and was always first in class. For some reason I couldn’t do it growing up. I would always fall sick before an exam. Everyone in town said she was wasting time and money on me and I won’t go anywhere in tennis.
How was the game when you started and what made many Indians compete well back then, compared to now?
Anand and I were the first professional athletes in any sport. There were not many players even in cricket. They had jobs with banks and other companies.
Krishnan left us at a certain level and we took it one step further from there. I reached the quarterfinals of Grand Slams four times and was in the final of the Davis Cup twice. You would expect the arc to improve. That would have been the ideal way.
You had six meetings with Bjorn Borg and you beat him at the first meeting in a five-setter. You had five wins over Jimmy Connors, too. Can you tell us about the rivalry?
Against Borg this was in 1974 in the second round (of the US Open). In 1973, we were already named the ABC of the tennis... A mritraj, B org and C onnors. That’s why we were on the centre court. It was a spectacular five-set brawl. We had different styles of play.
With Jimmy, he was extremely competitive. He hated playing against anyone he got along with and he hated the fact he got along with me. We play golf together even now. There are certain games that fit into the other person’s games. Connors’ game fit into the way I played. My game fit into the way McEnroe played. So I had a tough time against McEnroe compared to Jimmy.
On a slightly quicker court, if a right-hander had a pretty decent wide serve on the deuce court, a lefty two-hander struggles on the return that opens up the volley side of the court. Also when the left-hander’s backhand was stronger than his forehand which was how it was with Jimmy, I was able to attack his second serve and jump into the net. It was the reverse with McEnroe and myself.
The most important of our matches (against Connors) was the Wimbledon quarterfinal in 1981, where I was two sets to love and lost in five.
Do you look back at those close matches in Wimbledon against Borg and Connors and think things could have, perhaps, been different if you had closed them out?
Many say that I missed a chance to win the title. Against Borg I was 2-1 and 4-1 up in the fourth set before losing in five. Was I good enough to win? Yes. But that is looking at a cup half empty. My whole life the cup has been half full.
As the ATP President you brought the ATP event to India. What do you consider as some of your major achievements?
We had 85 tournaments in 60 countries. We were the most global sport without any seasons. When the option came we moved the tournament from Nice (France) to India with IMG. We started an ATP University. Every player in the top 300 in singles and the top 200 in doubles has to go to the ATP university before playing full time on the tour. We educate them about how to deal with the press, fans, sponsors or security.
The second thing I helped create was the ATP pension plan. It gives a monthly fee, if a player has been a professional player on the ATP tour for a full five years, after he turns 55. We started the fine fund. There are a lot of player fines, especially when McEnroe was playing (laughs). We use that money and put it in a fixed deposit to help a past player who is in distress.
Please tell us about your different roles after your tennis career came to an end...
Once my career was done, I got into television. In 1991, Prime Sports came into being and the first live event they telecast was the US Open that year. I signed in December for the next year to do all the four Slams. But I had no live TV experience before. Though I had movie experience, it adds little to the task of doing live TV. But they offered me a five-year contract without knowing how well I was going to be.
It taught me how to generate more interest to make people who don’t watch tennis to watch and give the seasoned viewers what they are expecting.
This took me to a talk show with some great people across the world from Donald Trump to Sugar Ray Leonard to Cindy Crawford. Most people knew me so it became very easy for them to open up.
As a commentator how have you seen the evolution of the game, especially around the time racquets started changing?
When the racquets got ahead of us, we didn’t arrest it at the right moment. The guys making racquets were coming from NASA and making these aerodynamic racquets where you didn’t even need a bat swing. The ball goes at a great speed. We should have arrested it at that time, be it the size, shape or things that went into it. By the time the racquet became so advanced, the average height of the players went up by five inches and everything got away from us. The only thing we could tamper with were the balls and the courts. So the balls became heavier and the courts became slower.
How did the acting part come about?
The producer of the Bond movies saw me play in Wimbledon. He sent his daughter to invite me for tea. Over tea, they said they had tested 500 actors and were not satisfied. They wanted me to do a screen test. So I did it as a semi-joke. Two days later, they wanted me to sign for 14 weeks. But I was playing tournaments. Then they made concessions where I could play for three weeks, shoot for two weeks thereafter and then go and play again. That’s how I did it. To be in a James Bond movie on your debut was great and then I did a Star Trek movie which was another incredible brand to be associated with. Then, serving the United Nations taught me a different perspective of what the world is. It took me to Bosnia, Northern Sri Lanka and Bhuj after the earthquake. You didn’t become one-dimensional because as an athlete it is about you only.
You have been a tennis player, acted in a Bond film, got into sports administration, functioned as a businessman and done live commentary. How did you manage to do all these things so successfully?
Actually, the travel is a lot more than when I was playing. It was one city a week back then. Now it is multiple cities in a week. I have always been one to challenge myself. I try to do things I enjoy. I have been blessed to be able to do things that I love and also worked hard to do it well. I have gotten better at doing things.
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