There’s more to life than a missed smash. Vijay Amritraj, who turned 60 this month, on tennis and after.
Wimbledon 1982. Centre Court. It is the year that Vijay Amritraj will eventually lose a close five-setter to the big-serving left-handed Roscoe Tanner, but he is playing one of the early rounds.
The producer of Octopussy is watching. At the end of the match, he sends his daughter down to ask Vijay whether he will have tea with him. During the chat, he says: “We have already checked out a number of people and haven’t come up with the right person for this role (MI 6’s India agent Sadaruddin and James Bond’s partner in this version of Ian Fleming’s posthumously published short story). Would you mind doing a screen test?”
“I laughed but my love for new experiences got the better of me,” recalls Vijay.
So he agreed on a date two days later. “After all, how many can say they worked at Pinewood Studios in the morning and then turned up at Centre Court to play Roscoe Tanner?”
The actor James Brolin, who screen tested as James Bond for Octopussy but never got the role, was flown in from Los Angeles for a scene with Vijay. “The producer loved it. He said don’t go to any acting classes, you will lose your originality.”
This may seem like an appealing story about a fortuitous break, which led to Star Trek and a clutch of American TV serials before he went on to become the man who is arguably the world’s most engaging tennis commentator. But in Vijay’s case, it seems like a metaphor for a life lived with an unmannered and almost reflexive ease.
All right, that needs to be qualified given that he took to tennis solely because he had severe difficulties with breathing as a child. His lungs, affected by a form of cystic fibrosis, functioned to 20 per cent capacity and he recalls a childhood spent on almost daily doses of intravenous injections and lying face down on an ironing board with his feet in the air to relieve the congestion in his chest.
But by thirteen-and-a-half — by which time he was running 10 km a day — he had won his first significant local tournament in Madras, beating someone six years older. The extraordinary struggle with his health seemed to retreat into the past and his ascent in the tennis world was astonishingly rapid.
In 1972, he first went to play in the United States. By the following year, he had beaten Jimmy Connors to win his first international tournament at Bretton Woods in New Hamsphire and reached the quarter-finals at the U.S. Open, having overcome Rod Laver along the way.
In the same year, he reached the quarter-final of another tournament, playing a match — or more accurately a point — that remains a talking point in his career. Two points away from winning against the eventual champion Jan Kodes at Wimbledon, Vijay flubbed an easy smash — distracted somewhat by a roar at Borg vs. Taylor quarter-final at the adjacent Centre Court — and ended up losing the match.
“I was hoping to go through this conversation without that question,” Vijay laughs, when I tell him about an old World Tennis article that hypothesised about how one shot impacted the careers of a few tennis players, including his. “Whether it is Heathrow, Kennedy, Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai, I get asked at the airports by at least five or 10 Indians about that match. And how I let them down. Last year, a couple of Union Ministers came to Court No 1 at Wimbledon and asked ‘Isn’t this the court where you missed that easy smash’? And this happened 40 years ago!”
But he concedes there is some truth in the theory that one shot can change a sportsman’s fortunes. “That is a very relevant question. Could I have won that match? Yes. Was I good enough to win Wimbledon that year? I think so, yes.”
Vijay says, and I suspect correctly, that people in India seem to remember the matches he lost more than those he won. Part of the reason is probably the sheer weight of expectations. We tend to forget that, along with his brother Anand, he was the first Indian professional sportsperson — others, even cricketers in those days, worked, if only nominally, for some corporate or the other.
And then, there was always that niggling feeling — strengthened by talk of the ABC of tennis — that he tended to play below his extraordinary potential.
As truly all-time greats, the next two letters in the alphabet sequence — Borg and Connors — went on to enjoy far greater success. But Vijay was easily the most pleasing to watch, his game resting on the foundation of the loping elegance of his easy self-assured strides. There was a crisp certainty in the manner the ball came off the strings, particularly off the backhand, and his left hand was invariably extended flawlessly for balance, his fingers — and you can still see this in some old pictures — splayed in shapes like mudras.
Of the three, he struck a reassuring note of classicism. Borg’s metronomic style was predicated on shovelling the ball sharply and consistently upwards from both flanks of the court and while Connors’ flat-handed groundies were spectacularly brutal, they were from nobody’s coaching manual.
Vijay had victories against pretty much everyone who was at the top of his game in his prime and his match record against Connors — five wins against six losses — was excellent. I watched one of the matches he lost at Wimbledon in 1981 — and somewhat inexplicably I thought — after being two-love up during which he bested Connors in just about every department of the game. So what happened?
“I made the quarters of the singles, the doubles and the mixed doubles that year,” he recalls. “And the day before, I had played eight sets while Connors had the day off. So when I came out to play, by the third set I was a couple of steps slower. But Connors and I have a good laugh about it even today. I told him just the other day over a glass of wine, ‘You know, you can never come to India after what you did to me. They will kill you’.”
Life after tennis has taken him further and into more areas than most sportspersons can ever hope — cinema, television, a stint as the UN’s messenger for peace, and the head of an eponymous foundation that supports charitable activities in India. After six decades, he has all that and so much more to look back on.
Perhaps that missed smash didn’t matter so much after all.