Vijay Amritraj passed up a chance for a substantial role in Star Trek IV to concentrate on tennis. The pay off came when he beat Yannick Noah at Wimbledon that year
When Vijay Amritraj uses the rather polished catchphrase, ‘Oh, I say!’, on match commentary it does not feel like an act. The man is dignified, dapper and retains an authentic ‘old-school’ feel to him. It is a perfect match. Amritraj, who took Indian tennis to new heights in the 1970s and 80s, was in the city recently on a personal visit, and graced a junior tennis tournament at Sadashivanagar Club. As shy teenagers look on from a distance, he breaks the ice with a “Hello there! Let’s get you a picture, shall we?”.
The 59-year-old, dressed in crisp formals, watched the final of the Karle Infra ATF junior tournament, before walking across to the media. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Let’s chit-chat – as the Americans say.” With a friendly demeanour, Amritraj does not feel the need to force an aura of a superstar. The polite, yet laidback style signals a quiet confidence (which, no doubt, comes with his success as a player, commentator and philanthropist) that is hard to miss.
Once the interaction begins, the conversation veers to the class factor — a trait commonly associated with those who played tennis during his time. “Players today are tremendous athletes, but the way they play is a lot more one-dimensional than our style. There is less skill involved now. When (John) McEnroe played (Bjorn) Bjorg, it was a delight to watch. They used all corners of the court. This is how all matches played out — find the angles here, a drop shot there, some serve and volley, and now how it is time to lob one over the guy’s head... People often ask me if I’m upset that I could not play in this age. And my answer is, ‘Absolutely not! I much prefer my time.’”
Amritraj, who holds the distinction of being the highest-ranked singles player in the history of Indian tennis, now works in varied fields. “I am involved with a lot of television and films in the U.S. as well as charity ventures. I enjoy television work. My show, Dimensions (a talk-show on CNN-IBN), is doing well. We’re doing 20 more episodes now. Of course, I have my tennis commentary.”
His brother, Ashok, is a successful Hollywood movie producer, and Vijay has tried his hand in the business as well. He played the ship captain in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and recalls the experience. “I would have actually done a bigger role, but the shooting was to take place during Queens (an important warm-up tournament for Wimbledon). I remember having a huge debate with my agent. I wanted to do the movie, and he said ‘You can act in movies whenever you want, but you will never be able to play the game at this level’. He told me to go play Queens, and that’s what I did. I think I beat Yannick Noah that year at Wimbledon. So I guess it worked out pretty well!”
The stalwart will soon reach a new milestone; he was recently nominated for the prestigious Dhyan Chand award. A lifetime achievement award often denotes the end of productive work for the recipient, but Amritraj is far from done. “I don’t look at it as just a pat on the back. I look at it as an impetus to achieve more for the country. There was a stage in my life where tennis was all- encompassing. I played on the Tour for 25 years, I played the Davis Cup for 20 years, I was in the top-10, and I beat all the guys I needed to beat in my generation.
“That was one segment, and then I move on... I began thinking about how I can become the best broadcaster in the world. That’s something I put a lot of thought into. Then, it was time to focus on my charity. My foundation now supports 19 charities. It’s just different stages in life, and I want to do more.”