HE is the Prince of Indian tennis, one of the most popular sports personalities in the country.
Abroad, he is India's sports "ambassador extraordinaire", the tennis pro who sports that warm and friendly boy-next-door grin through victory and defeat, through glory and disaster, both on court and away from it. To introduce Vijay Amritraj formally to the readers of a sports magazine would perhaps be an anachronism. Like an orbiting satellite,Vijay has been sending signals on and off through his deeds.
Admittedly, his performance on the professional tennis circuit has lacked consistency and it would be rather far-fetched to give Vijay an "excellent" rating. "One day I am better than the best in the game but the following afternoon I would go and lose to a rank outsider", says Vijay with transparent honesty.
But the year that has gone by (1980) has been the best in the career of the 27-year-old Indian ace, according to his own estimate as well as that of critics at home and abroad. With two Volvo Grand Prix title triumphs; in Long Island, U.S.A. in July and recently at Bangkok, Thailand; and string of other good performances, Vijay, has inched his way up from 33 to 19 on the ATP computer.
“Both should rate at the very top of the table of all time greats. But personally, I would pay anything to watch Laver play whereas I cannot say the same about Borg. Bjorn's record is no doubt incredible but I would hesitate to go and watch him play.”
At Montreal (Canada) in the WCT Challenge Cup a week before Christmas, Vijay played splendidly, beating the Pole, Wojtek Fibak, and Peter Fleming (US) to reach the final and it looked as if he would cap a fine year by claiming the title. But then, almost inevitably, he fell in humiliating fashion to the only man among ATP's top ten whom he has never beaten; the twice U.S. Open winner, John McEnroe.
Essentially the pre-1980 Vijay had been an enigma. But his performance in ’80 does reflect a streak of consistency and his game seems to have taken on an authoritative edge that was not there hitherto. It has taken a long time for Vijay to reach this stage, from the heady days in the early part of the 70s when, as a lean, avid youngster he had received rave notices in the world press.
He even went so far as to be bunched, by some critics, with Borg and Connors as the 'ABC' of tennis; the three most promising youngsters on view. It appeared a dream, and the dream teetered beguilingly on the edge of reality as Vijay scored a series of big wins in '73, a year in which he was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon and the US Open and winner at the Volvo International. In the second round that year at Forest Hills Vijay had beaten the great Rod Laver in a five-setter that had touches of a high noon melodrama. "It still ranks as the best win of my career," Vijay recalls today.
But, following this, even as Borg and Connors inexorably climbed up the ladder, Vijay was slipping. He had his big wins, no doubt, but those were few and far between to take him anywhere near the elite 10.
The year 1980 has given rise to new hopes, as Vijay himself says with a renascent confidence, "My game is getting closer to winning Wimbledon, the No. 1 on my list of priorities."
Knocking around the odd corners of the globe for tennis bounty, the 6' 4" Vijay jets home for brief vacations once or twice a year. Recently Vijay was in Madras to spend Christmas with his family; his mother Maggie Amritraj, his father, Robert, and tennis playing brothers Anand and Ashok.
"It is great to be home", Vijay seemed visibly thrilled as' he said that when THE SPORTSTAR correspondent met him at his residence in Sterling Road, Madras, on the last day of 1980. The sinking evening sun set aglow the silk finish of his dark blue jacket as he warmed up for an intimate interview'.
The following are the excerpts from the conversation.
You have beaten most of the top tennis pros on the tour except John McEnroe. Reminiscent of the Borg-Gerulaitis syndrome, every time you play McEnroe you seem to be a faint shadow of yourself. What is the reason for this?
I would say my showing against McEnroe is more like what happened between Ashe and Laver. For, McEnroe is more like Laver and I am more like Ashe. A few months before our latest meeting in Montreal I played him in Milan, Italy, and lost. But in the earlier rounds I had beaten some of the best in the game like Vilas and others. It might seem strange, but that is the way it turns out. The reason I think is that John (McEnroe) likes to play a guy who plays good, clean power tennis. I fit that role very well. John also serves at his best everytime we meet and let me tell you, his serve is THE most difficult to read. For some reason, confidence or whatever, I have never been able to get anywhere against him. I guess I'll have to try and vary my game against him. I have given a lot of thought to this and I am going to scan a computer study of John's game to try and get some clues on how to beat him.
You have been quoted in the press as saying that 1980 has been your best year in pro tennis. What makes you say this? Why not '73, when you were younger and still made the quarters’ in Wimbledon and Forest Hills?
The main difference between '73 and "80 is that, today, I am physically stronger. You have to be mentally and physically mature to remain in top grade tennis and in '73 I was just not mature. When a player has just come into the circuit, as was my case in '73, he can afford to lose to several guys as it would go unnoticed. At the same time, one big win is enough to get him into the glare of publicity. But when you are 27 years old and ranked 19 in the world, there are very few guys you can (or are expected) lose to. I said 1980 has been my best year so far because I think I did not lose to that many players I should not lose to, considering my ranking.
Would you attribute your successes in 1980, at least partly, to the coaching you undertook with Roy Emerson in the US?
Yes indeed, Emerson has helped me improve my game tremendously. He would spend the whole day (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) on the court with me and we used to have strenuous workouts. That is why I like to start the year with a session with Emerson. I'll be there for ten days from Jan. 5 before I leave for Mexico to play in a tournament there. The Davis Cup format has been changed and sponsorship has been introduced. A lot of money is at stake in the Davis Cup competitions now.
You think these changes will help improve the quality of competition? How do you see India's chances in the coming year?
I have always loved Davis Cup competitions, for it is a great thing when you are playing for India and not just as Vijay Amritraj. But many of the top-ranked players had chosen to stay away because there was little money in the Davis Cup matches. Now changes have been rung in and I am sure it will lure the big ones in the game to play for their country. The format is good but I think that they should not have brought it in so suddenly and implemented the scheme based on last year’s results. Now India will lose a whole year as we have to first play in the qualifying round. As for India's chances, a lot would depend on the draw and also the venue. For instance, let us say we draw the Czechs in Prague......well, I am optimistic but I am not a fool.
As one of the "gentlemen" players in the game today, what is your opinion on display of tempers on tennis courts?
Everybody has a temper. It is not wrong to be temperamental. But then there are limits to that. As I see it,. one can afford to be funny on court. I mean a little bit of clowning will keep the crowd in good humour. But when you are in the public eye, you should avoid obscene behaviour. Such "bad acting" on courts will cost more from this year as the ATP had decided to enhance the fine from $(US) 250 to 500.
Have you ever felt that you have had an overdose of tennis, a point where you thought, well that's it now I need a break.
I have lived with the feeling throughout. Three weeks of competitive tennis and I feel I should take a week off. But to stay keen and to stay at the top, or at least to hold on to your ranking, you have to keep playing. But I am not a tennis robot. I like to spend most of my free time away from tennis courts and during these hours I hate to discuss the game.
As a player who has played and beaten both of them, how would you compare Rod Laver with Bjorn Borg?
Performance wise there is little to choose between the two and cold statistics hardly mean anything. Both should rate at the very top of the table of all time greats. But personally, I would pay anything to watch Laver play whereas I cannot say the same about Borg. Bjorn's record is no doubt incredible but I would hesitate to go and watch him play.
How do you see your chances of playing yourself into the 'elite 10' group in 1981?
It is good to be in the top cluster, I admit. But I see it from a different angle. It will give me greater pleasure to be a finalist or a winner at Wimbledon than being say, No. 9. I see if from the individual events angle. The only thing good about being No. 9 is that you are closer to No. 1 there than when you are No. 19.
(The interview first appeared in the Sportstar magazine dated January 17, 1981)
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