Join Date: Oct 2007
Location: Houston, Texas
(Sept. 1973 SI article on Vijay Amritraj)
Vijay Amritraj, the 19-year-old from Madras, India who reached the quarterfinals at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills this summer, has a relish for the game and a regard for the people involved in it that has not only impressed players and officials but has endeared him to the fans as well. Smiling broadly at opponents and clapping his racket strings overhead in appreciation of their winning shots, Amritraj has hit enough winners of his own to make a name for himself and for India, which has had little stature in world tennis since the prime of another Madras native, Ramanathan Krishnan.
Krishnan was ranked as high as third in the world in the late '50s, which was about the time the brightly colored cloth woven in his hometown was in vogue. He remains the only Indian to have reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, a fact that helps explain why Amritraj was so lightly regarded there this July, even though he was playing against a field depleted by the Association of Tennis Professionals' boycott. But unlike so many of the strange-sounding names in Wimbledon's 1973 draw, Vijay proved he could play, coming within two points of upsetting the eventual champion, Jan Kodes, in the fifth set. Nor was his showing a fluke, as anyone who watched the match could attest. He was sharp enough for the world's ranking players—both those who were at Wimbledon and those who were not—to take note that here, alas, was someone new to worry about.
The British press gave Amritraj little attention, however. It was absorbed by necessity with the ATP strike and, by choice, with the teenyboppers who chased Sweden's 17-year-old Bjorn Borg from Centre Court to Piccadilly Circus and back again. It was not until a month later in this country that Vijay made the headlines by surviving eight match points against three opponents to win the Volvo International in Bretton Woods, N.H. Down 0-5 in the last set against Humphrey Hose of Venezuela, then 4-5 and love-40 against Rod Laver's serve and 4-5 and 15-40 against Jimmy Connors' serve in the finals, Amritraj manufactured three miraculous comebacks to take the $5,000 first prize and a new car.
But Bretton Woods is a backwoods, to be honest about it, so it was not until his U.S. Open victory over Laver in a three-hour battle on national TV that tennis followers began to look upon him with the same sense of discovery and excitement that they have accorded young Connors and Borg. As soon as Forest Hills found out who Vijay was and learned to distinguish him from his brother Anand, it could not get enough of him. When reporters finished interviewing Vijay, his admirers would take over, trailing their Asian Pied Piper all the way back to the clubhouse and beyond, if the guards were not careful. Often, and considering the setting this seemed doubly strange, tennis was not the subject of their questions. Examples:
Who is the Guru Maharaj Ji, anyway? "I don't really know. He has no popularity in India. Only here." What music do you like to listen to? "Not Ravi Shankar, if that's what you mean." And the inevitable Americanized O.J. Simpson- Y.A. Tittle question: What do your initials "V.J." stand for? "Uh, oh, Vijay is my natural name."
Until Maggie Amritraj introduced her two oldest sons to tennis at ages 11 and 9, Anand and Vijay seemed destined to pursue other pastimes. Anand had been something of a chess prodigy since he was six. No doubt that is why he found cricket "too slow" and agreed to try tennis, which his mother had played in college. Vijay, on the other hand, wanted to become the best badminton player in India, a goal he did not give up until he saw how much fun Anand was having winning junior tennis tournaments.
T.A. Rama Rao, the boys' coach—he died last May—was a perfectionist and a disciplinarian. Once he slapped a three-day suspension on the brothers because in a moment of boyish irresponsibility they had raced off the court in the middle of a lesson to chase a paper kite. Luckily, Mrs. Amritraj intervened, the boys apologized and they were reinstated.
In 1968, before the boys were to leave home for their first series of junior team matches with Great Britain, their parents built a fast red-clay court on the 3 acres surrounding the family house. The house is sizable, a two-storied bungalow that was Maggie Amritraj's home as a child. It now houses the family of five (youngest son Ashok, 16, is an up-and-coming tennis player himself) and nearly a dozen servants. The boys' father, Robert Amritraj, is a senior official for the Southern India Railroad and well salaried, but not so well that the sporting activities of his sons do not sometimes strain the family budget. The Amritrajes are Roman Catholics, which discounts any theories that Vijay's gracious court manners and ability to handle pressure might stem from mystic Hindu disciplines. He is a very devout Catholic, and prays before each match. On Good Friday this year, Vijay fasted, then went out the next day and beat Sayed Meer in a Davis Cup match against Pakistan.
Vijay's traveling companion and roommate is his brother Anand. Though Anand has shown some signs of envy lately—at Forest Hills people were constantly calling him Vijay—the two brothers are so close that some felt Anand deliberately let Vijay win India's junior title from him in 1968. Anand had held the championship from 1965 to 1967, Vijay continued the family tradition from 1968 to 1970 and they are presently co-ranked No. 1 in India. Little brother Ashok is the top junior.
At home, as they are now to begin the Asian circuit, Vijay and Anand follow a standard routine, rising at 5:30 a.m. to swallow two eggs beaten in milk, followed by a three-mile run. Then it's back inside for a more normal breakfast and, finally, tennis—sometimes throughout a 110 day until dark. Though Mr. and Mrs. Amritraj always thought their first son would be the best player of the three, dedication has begun to pay off for Vijay.
Amritraj has an almost classic tennis build, 6'3" and 158 pounds, a little thin, perhaps, but that will change. His serve is strong and he covers the court well, hitting ground strokes that are already among the hardest in the game. He has that nervelessness that accompanies youth, the ability to hit the same shot no matter if it is match point for or against him. He lost to Ken Rosewall at Forest Hills, but not because he was up against a tennis legend in front of a large crowd on center court. Rosewall was merely better. In fact, as shot after shot whistled by him, kicking up chalk, Vijay would look over to where Anand was sitting and smile delightedly, as if to say, "Isn't that great, Rosewall is just as wonderful as we always heard he was."
U.S. Open champion John Newcombe thinks Amritraj may already be the best young player in tennis. "When I played our Davis Cup match in Madras in May," he recalled at Forest Hills, "it was something like 130� on the court. Here we were, Vijay and I, in a 10,000-seat Davis Cup stadium that literally had been made out of bamboo and string and put up in 17 days. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. We quit after a set each, and I remember thinking how uncommonly tough he was then. But after watching him play here at Forest Hills I feel he has the least amount of shots to improve among the young players. Borg and Connors, for example, still have weaknesses they need to work on, but Vijay gets to the ball very early with his long strides and good reach. If you're not careful with his powerful strokes, he'll knock the ball by you before you can get into position."
Success has already complicated the lives of Vijay and Anand, who fell only a tie-breaker point short of making the semifinals in doubles at Forest Hills. There are no endorsement offers as yet, but Vijay has agreed to switch from Slazenger to a Rawlings racket because they offered to pay him more. (Anand will, too, but he feels he is worth more than he is getting.) Winning the Volvo in New Hampshire meant that Vijay had to negotiate with the Indian government to relax its prohibitive import duty on automobiles (160% of cost) on the grounds that it was a prize and not purchased. Chances are that will be settled favorably, but he will continually have to contend with India's restrictive economic policies.
"Any money you take into India—dollars or pounds, for example—must be declared and then changed into rupees," he explains. "You are not allowed to take many rupees out of the country or to have a foreign bank account. So it is one thing to be rich inside India and another to be rich outside."
Eventually, Vijay would like to play the WCT tour, whether the India Lawn Tennis Federation likes it or not. He would be a stimulating addition to the tour. In Hindi, by the way, his first name means "victory."
Bjorn Borg defied analysis. No one could manufacture a man that won 6 French Open and 5 straight Wimbledon titles. - Andrew Longmore