Vijay Amritraj: 1970s and 80s were the best phase in Indian tennis

"Not being part of the World Group in Davis Cup and Fed Cup and not being regularly in all the Grand Slams is where we have dropped a bit now," says the Indian tennis great.

Committing to be a sportsperson is a gamble, but it's a gamble worth taking, says Vijay Amritraj. Photo: Vijay Lokapally

Tennis great Vijay Amritraj, in Delhi as Testimonee for Rolex, the sponsor for Roland-Garros, the only Grand Slam tournament to be played on clay, spoke exclusively to Sportstar.

The excerpts

Q. How do you look at the tennis scene internationally?

A. The interesting thing with the tennis scene is the pushing of the old guard by the new guard, that's the interesting aspect of the men's tennis is. For example, if you see the top-three guys who are still playing outstanding tennis. And Roger [Federer], of course is in late 30s and the other two are 32. But you've got the younger breed who are pushing them and pushing them hard. So it's forcing these guys to train harder and manage their schedules better and still continue to win the big ones.

And women's tennis?

Women's tennis is actually more wide open. We have got the Osakas and the Haleps, the Pliskovas — you have a whole slew of girls looking at the No. 1 ranking which is what makes it more exciting because you see two unknown girls you might not have seen on a regular basis suddenly playing each other in the final.

A lot of players always complain a lot about travelling and sponsorship issues. Has tennis become a sport for only the elite?

Nothing has changed. It's easier to get sponsors today than you could 40 years ago. There is more on television today than 30 years ago. There's more knowledge and opportunity today than any time in the history of our sport. The only thing that has become tough is the competition.

About Indian tennis, are we on the right track, in terms of organising tournaments, identifying talent, giving them opportunities?

I don't think the AITA would look at it as their job to do that (getting sponsorships). The most important aspect of the AITA is to afford them tournament opportunities, to see they get as many tournaments as they can. And there is probably no sense in getting the biggest tournaments because they won't get in.So you've got to get the smallest tournaments so that they can get in.

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The tour events that they have had, the Challengers and the Futures tournaments we have had in India in the last 10 years, we have had an incredible amount of opportunities for the players. I don't think there is lack of opportunities. You didn't have that in the 70s and the 80s. So you had to go and play against a clay court player, on clay, in Europe and try and get the same number of points that a guy can get here today.

Best phase for Indian tennis?

The 70s and 80s, no questions about that. Because Open tennis came in 1968 and by that time Ramanathan Krishnan's era finished. And then it became my job to become the best in India and the best in Asia and of course the highest-ranked Indian player we have had to this day. And even to this day it looks like I had the most ATP Tour titles than any other Asian. I led India to two Davis Cup Finals. If we look back in time, then that was the best time for Indian tennis.

And why haven't we moved forward?

I don't think it's through lack of trying. Not being part of the World Group in Davis Cup and Fed Cup and not being regularly in all the Grand Slams is where we have dropped a bit now.

You think the sport in India also lacks a role model or individual guidance today?

Yes and no. I don't think the guidance today is not about what we see or know of. There is so much exposure on social media and television that there's nothing you don't know or see. When I was playing, it was like this guy is playing at the highest level, winning so many matches on the biggest stages and that's what we need to do now. And that's what happened to Sweden also, with Bjorn Borg and then Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg and so on. Today Swedish tennis is not in the same boat as it was in the heydays of 70s and 80s. I think if you have to look at it and say, at the end off the day it all comes down to the individual and be able to play the hand you have been dealt.

If a youngster comes to you and says I want to be a good tennis player, what would you tell him?

I would say play a lot of tennis, looking at the age of the player, two-three hours a day if you can afford to after school. It depends on what you want to do — if you want to play tennis at a high level you get into a good college and get good education and then see how best you can play college tennis and go on to become a professional tennis player. Forget about anything else, you might think of doing because there is no time for anything else sacrifice all else not just you but your family as well, give up everything you want and see if you can pursue your dream and the dream has to be single-minded.

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Do you think the fun part has gone out of sport, in the sense there is too much of emphasis on being a professional? Is there too much of emphasis on over-analysis and constant scrutiny of media and fans?

Yes, I agree with all of that. I think there is a lot of more playing inside the box, so to speak and we don't perhaps have the characters that we had when we were playing. I am not saying that bad behaviour makes you a character but I think you can behave in a manner where you are more original. Whether you are a Monfils or a Tsipsitas or a Zverev all these guys who bring a new dynamic to the game, I think it's beautiful, along with good tennis.

"There's more knowledge and opportunity today than any time in the history of our sport. The only thing that has become tough is the competition." Children learning tennis at a summer camp in Guntur. Photo: T. Vijaya Kumar

 

If the consistency of your tennis is a given you also have to bring in your originality with work and that's what makes Tsipsitas so important. I think he puts Greece on the tennis map. I think Zverev puts Germany on the tennis map. Monfils puts France on the map. Those things are important for me and to be able to create more characters and be a little more outside the box.

Your role as part of Rolex.

I have very much been part of the Rolex family for about 20 years now and to see that Rolex has got all the four Grand Slams now is wonderful. The thing about Rolex is not just that it is a fantastic product which we are all aware of and in that space it holds number one position and it will continue to do a lot longer than Roger did. But if we look back it's the philosophy of the company and the way they do events — the mentor and protege programme, the Road to Wimbledon programme and bringing it to India and Hong Kong and Japan and exposing the brand Wimbledon to the next generation coming up the 14-16 year old bracket saying nothing is beyond the dream and it's so true, it just doesn't tell the time.

Your message to today's youth?

I would sort of make it more general and say to the Indian family, the importance of sport needs to be made part of life, that a sport has to be a part of your life, irrespective of what sport it is. It keeps your family together if you can play a sport together. The best game I ever saw in my life was my 10-year old son playing a set against my 75-year old father, in California. And I think that's the kind of thing you want to bring together from the sport. But if you want to excel at a sport, that's whole different ball game altogether, where there is a commitment and sacrifice of proportions that you can't even imagine.

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Are we a sporting country?

I think we are a spectacularly enthusiastic country in sport but I am entirely not sure we are committed to the risk of being a sportsperson because there is no greater risk than wanting to play a sport at the highest level. You are much better off building a start-up, even today. It is the greatest risk to gamble everything on your child becoming an athlete. But, it's a gamble worth taking.

If not Vijay Amritraj, then?

If I wasn't a tennis player I would have been a doctor, it was the first profession I ever wanted to be. I thought it was the noblest profession of all to save lives because I spent a lot of time around hospitals growing up and I saw what they were doing, that was always my first choice.