Vijay Amritraj and Bjorn Borg, the A and B of the fabled ‘ABC’ of 1970s tennis along with Jimmy Connors, on Sunday, raised curtains on the Chennai Open Challenger event with plenty of recollection of older days and some insights on the shared vision for tennis. And a bit of banter as well.
Amritraj quickly reminded the audience of the time he beat Borg in the U.S. Open before the duo moved to business.
“We are delighted to have the challenger series back after four years. Great opportunity for all our Indian boys to play in the main draw,” said Amritraj.
“Lots of good players at the tournament. This week, you are going to see good tennis,” added Borg.
Their beloved sport, in their respective homes - Sweden and India - has seen better days. Once boasting of titans such as Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg and Borg himself, the European nation now has just one player in the ATP top 100. India has none even in top 300.
Events like Chennai Open are a step in the right direction. Borg even sees the possibility of the two nations joining hands for future tournaments.
“Sweden and India are maybe struggling a bit to produce top players. And the work Vijay is doing (to improve) is phenomenal. I’m trying the same in Sweden. Hopefully, we’re heading in the right direction and (are able to) do some interesting things in Indian tennis.
“I and Vijay talk about it. For us, tennis is most important. We want our countries to be successful. Players have to grow and become champions. That’s our ambition,” Borg added.
Having laid hands on a Grand Slam title 11 times, Borg is no stranger to the demands of winning big. But modern-day tennis brings a layered complexity with it, he feels.
“Firstly, you have to play on all surfaces. Physically, you need to be in great shape. More players, more countries, and the guys hit the ball harder. You need to have motivation. It (requires) hard work.
“Even if you have that motivation, (even) if you work hard, doesn’t mean you’re going to achieve what you want. But you train anyway to find your way,” said Borg.
Quite ironically, in Borg’s case, while success remained a close friend, the motivation stranded him. For all his prowess on the court and meteoric rise to fame, Borg called it quits at the age of 26. Amid the shutterbugs flashing in his face, his superstardom, and the never-ending trips across the world, he ran out of gas.
“I was never by myself. I was hounded by people in hotels and airports. I couldn’t do anything. I felt I was stuck. I didn’t have a life,” he said.
Borg becomes a case in point for propagators of sports psychologists, a growing concept in modern sports, especially tennis. But he differs. “Even if you have a team with you, you are on your own on the court. You have to make the decision yourself. No one else can do that. Psychology is important but (they are) not going to tell you what to do,” Borg added.
But Borg would do it all over again. His love for tennis is unchanged. He now sees the same passion in his 19-year-old son, Leo, who has been given a wildcard for the main draw.
“I’m happy to see him play. I love to see him. He has his team but once in a while, I and my wife come along,” Borg said. “I think he doesn’t like it though,” Borg adds sheepishly.
Watching Leo play comes with its perils, he admits. “It is worse to watch your son because you get more nervous. It’s better when you play by yourself because you have control.”
Borg joins an illustrious list of players who’ve been handed wildcards at the Chennai Open (formerly an ATP250 event). Karen Khachanov (2016) and Rafael Nadal (in doubles in 2007) are a few on the roll.
“I think a young guy from Europe, who is winning futures (tournaments), you encourage. Just like we did with Rafa (Rafael Nadal) 20 years ago,” said Amritraj.
“The guys who’ve got wildcards abroad have gone on to make the top 20. We’re still kind of waiting on that. Karen Khachanov played here in the qualifiers and made the semifinal in the Australian Open. We like to see these things. We (Indian players) have to be inspired by that,” he added.
There are lessons to be learned, said Amritraj as the session neared an end. The focus moved to the courts in Nungambakkam. He and Borg have ideas aplenty. Most are about how to cheer up the state of tennis, but a few are to settle personal scores as well. They joke about a tie-breaker between them to end the debate once and for all.
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