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Vijay Amritraj - Gentleman of the centre court

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes

Vijay Amritraj - Gentleman of the centre court
Vijay Amritraj

The ABC of Tennis, they were called – Amritraj, Borg and Connors. Vijay Amritraj was one of the best of India’s tennis players, but there was little in his early Madras years to indicate that. His introduction to tennis was at the insistence of his parents, who had no inkling of how the racquet would eventually reward him. The sport was more of therapy to build confidence in an asthmatic child, born with cystic fibrosis that is known to induce a fluid build-up in patients.

His brother Anand was already taking tennis lessons. One would presume that a middle-class family investing in tennis coaching for an ailing child to be a luxury. But the parents decided to squeeze the family budget tighter and pay for Vijay’s lessons too. While both the parents played tennis, the boys’ mother, the formidable Maggie represented Presidency College and Madras University. Maggie was a gritty lady. Vijay would often recall that with the kind of maternal backing he had, failure was not an option. She was obsessed with turning all her three boys or at least one of them into a tennis champions.

Vijay’s coach Rama Rao spotted a spark in him and predicted, “I will see Vijay as a national champion before I die.” He was a disciplinarian, but when Vijay was admitted to hospital on suspicions of TB, Rao would sit beside and regale him with tales of the tennis greats. But he was exacting to a fault when it came to grooming Vijay as a player. Once during a match, while Vijay was set to serve, he glanced upon a kite flying untethered in the sky. It had been cut from its terrestrial contact by a rival using the manja twine. The time-honoured tradition for boys in Madras was to drop everything and give such rudderless kites a hot chase. It was a free-for-all, finders-keepers affair. Vijay, unable to resist his urge, dropped his racquet and ran after the kite. It took several apologies before Rao let him back in court.

Like many youngsters, Vijay dabbled in various sports. He was good at badminton as well and represented Madras State against Karnataka in a junior tournament. He would lose to an upcoming Karnataka player called Prakash Padukone in the finals. But with Maggie and Rao urging him on, Vijay started taking tennis seriously, a tad too earnestly as he started defeating his elder sibling Anand in tournaments. Anand was better coached and fitter of the two. Initially, it upset the parents that Vijay was disrupting the natural order of the family. He was even reprimanded the first time he beat Anand, but soon it became routine.

In 1972, Vijay achieved his first success by beating the great Ramanathan Krishnan in the finals of the Indian Championships in Calcutta. A new champion was on the rise. Vijay arrived in Madras as the national champion with prize money of Rs 100. He went straight to his coach Rao, who was on his deathbed and offered the dakshina to him. A few weeks later, Rao passed away, satisfied that his prediction came true.

When Vijay attempted to widen his sporting horizons, he found there was a world of difference between Indian and international tennis. Grass courts had always proved to be tough to maintain in sunny south India. Starting from colonial times, tennis courts in Madras were clayey and slippery as they were slightly topped with cow dung.

There were problems with his game style as well. In the US, his ball toss prior to serving was so high, that there were jokes about the ball endangering low-flying aircraft. A shortage of homely food, foreign exchange and adequate practice added to his troubles. But he was quick to adapt. Soon, Vijay was giving top players a run for their money, pulling off upsets and winning an occasional tournament. The Boston Globe referred to his magic on the courts as ‘The Madras Monsoon’ and his Indian rope trick.

In 1973, he won his first Grand Prix tournament in Hong Kong and soon enough, reached the quarterfinals at two Grand Slam events – Wimbledon and the US open. Winning a tournament in the US, he was presented with the keys to a shiny new Volvo. Oblivious to import duties, Vijay loaded the car onto a ship headed for Bombay. That’s when he was told about coughing up a whopping 360% duty on it (thanks to the License Raj) Newspapers were inundated with indignant reader mail on Vijay’s quandary of being unable to accept a hard-won prize. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, while refusing to waive the import duty, offered Vijay a grant equivalent to that of the car’s value – for his exceptional accomplishment in the international arena as an Indian athlete.

Vijay was getting better and busier playing his singles and doubles pairing with his brother Anand, sometimes in slots on either side of lunch. His excellent manners on the court stood in stark contrast to that of the unruly boys of tennis who would throw tantrums on missing a shot. Vijay was being recognised on the streets of America and Europe by commoners. His victories turned him into a celebrity sportsman. His popularity did not dawn upon him until just before Wimbledon 1982, he was approached to do a screen test for the next James Bond movie Octopussy.

If selected, he would be playing Roger Moore’s Indian assistant who was adept at handling a cobra (Indians were typecast as snake charmers in old Hollywood). The producers even sent a ten-foot cobra to his hotel room so he could get acquainted with the reptile. Vijay’s screen test with the slithering co-star was no joke. On that same day, he was pitted against the formidable Roscoe Tanner (whose left-handed serve clocked 246 km/h) in Wimbledon. He lost to Tanner but got through his screen test.

Shot mostly in Udaipur, Octopussy premièred at the Odeon, Leicester Square, with a special royal show presided by the Prince and Princess of Wales - Charles and Diana. Vijay stood in the line of those being introduced to the guests of honour. Diana must have done her homework, or perhaps, Vijay was admired in Buckingham Palace too, for as soon as he bowed, the Princess said, “You’re in great shape. It must be tennis.”

↔— The writer is a historian and an author

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Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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