The build-up to Wimbledon in 1973 was less than ideal. In the days leading to the grasscourt Major, talks of a player boycott dominated headlines. Eventually, 81 men’s players, including defending champion Stan Smith, chose to skip the tournament to stand in solidarity with Nikola Pilic, Yugoslavia’s No 1 who had been suspended by his national association for missing a Davis Cup tie.
For a Grand Slam, the oldest and most prestigious in the sport, that had commanded the respect and attention of players, this was an unprecedented development where 12 of the top 16 seeds decided to skip the event. With the tennis world in a flux, a wide-eyed teenager from Madras stepped in and stepped up.
Vijay Amritraj, tall and “scrawny” (as he described himself back then), rode on the excitement of playing at his second Wimbledon Championships. In 1973, 50 years ago, the 19-year-old became the first Indian to reach the singles quarter-finals at Wimbledon – or any Grand Slam – in the Open Era that started in 1968.
It was an achievement that would put Amritraj in the global tennis limelight. Importantly, it was one that laid the foundation – the first major step – in what would be a stellar career.
“I became a known face in tennis as well as on television. A real competitor to win tournaments anywhere I played thereafter,” Amritraj said over the phone to Scroll, recalling the impact of his achievement 50 years ago.
Amritraj went on to win 15 ATP tour titles – more than any other Asian player. His highest singles ranking of 18 is the best-ever achieved by an Indian in the Open Era.
And it all started at Wimbledon 1973.
“There were enough good players to win it, including (former world No 1) Ilie Nastasie, and (future Wimbledon champions) Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg,” Amritraj said.
“But when you get to Wimbledon at 19, to be able to win four matches starting from the Round of 128, was a thrilling fact for someone like me, coming from India. And then playing that incredible five-set match against Jan Kodes (in the quarter-final).
“By the time I was done, all the big newspapers in England had very nice write-ups on me, basically discussing how many times I was going to win Wimbledon and not whether I would.”
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Amritraj, now 69, often makes appearances at public events dressed in a crisp suit, complete with cufflinks and an Indian flag for a lapel pin. Fifty years ago, he was a skinny teenager, standing at 6-foot-4 tall, with a deft touch at the net and strong groundstrokes to back it up.
Along with the excitement of being at Wimbledon, came the thrill of being driven to All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club – the venue for the Major – in the official tournament Rolls Royce cars.
“Can you just imagine a 19-year-old being driven up to The Championships in a Rolls Royce?” he asked, laughing at the memory.
The privilege was one thing, he had to put in the work to get the results. In the first round, he beat Australia’s Harold Turnbull 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. In the second, he beat Belgium’s Bernard Mignot 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. In the third, however, he was to face the then Britain No 1 John Lloyd.
“He was very much a kind of pin-up star on newspapers, but interestingly, the crowd for the match between him and me was evenly split,” Amritraj recalled. “For whatever reason, the British crowd was always in my corner regardless of whom I played.”
In a match where the momentum kept swinging, Amritraj eventually won 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5.
Next up was seventh seed Owen Davidson of Australia, but the Indian overcame that challenge as well, notching up a 7-5, 8-9, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
That win put Amritraj in the quarter-final in what was only his second appearance at Wimbledon. A year earlier, he had lost out in the second round.
Final before the final
Over the course of the tournament, his fan-following had built up significantly, but up next was second seed Jan Kodes of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia. At that time, Kodes was already a two-time French Open winner, but Amritraj had been buoyed by the way he had been playing through the tournament. This was expected to be the hardest fight he would face, but he was ready to put everything into it. So much so that he had reached within two points of an improbable win.
“Kodes was the better player, let me put it that way. This guy was the clear favourite,” he said.
“But I managed to get a lead in the fifth set. I was up 5-4, and I had an overhead smash that I had to make to set up match point. I missed the smash. This was a match that everyone felt that the winner would be the one to win the title. And that’s what happened.”
Amritraj went on to lose that match 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7. And Kodes went on to win the title.
Wimbledon, a journey that had been most exciting and enthralling now ended with a touch of disappointment. But, apart from the vast number of spectators that had flocked over to SW19 to catch a glimpse of and cheer for the tall, unknown Indian, his entire family was there along with him.
Amritraj’s parents, Robert and Maggie were there. His elder brother Anand had reached the second round of men’s singles, and younger brother Ashok had made it to the third round of the junior boys draw.
“We all had a laugh together, we ate together at cheap Indian restaurants at night,” Amritraj recalled. “My whole family was there, but it wasn’t like today where players have their entire team with them. There were no major strategic conversations. We had no idea what London or the United Kingdom would be. Nobody knew how this guy Kodes played.”
That run at Wimbledon – regardless of the depleted field – was a launching pad that would propel his career. In the months that followed, he’d go on to beat the great Rod Laver – twice. He would win his first two tour titles. He would also make it to the quarter-final of the US Open.
“It just went to show that the boycott in London didn’t really make a difference to my performance,” he added.
Reception back home
After the Wimbledon sojourn, Amritraj competed in the United States swing and would only return to India three months later in October.
But the reception would be a completely different to what it was like when he left.
Amritraj had starred at an exhibition event in Hong Kong in March 1973, beating several members of the Australian Davis Cup team. In May, India was to host Australia in a Davis Cup tie in Madras, and the organisers had made grand arrangements given the success of their latest star.
India lost that tie 4-0.
The youngster made a quiet exit from the country. But when he returned, as he described it, “there were, I don’t know, thousands of people at the airport in Bombay to welcome me back with flowers and all sorts of gifts.”
A few weeks later, he’d win the ATP event in New Delhi to cement his place in Indian tennis history.
Since 1973, there have been just two occasions more where an Indian reached the singles quarter-final at Wimbledon – Amritraj again reaching the last eight in 1981, followed by Ramesh Krishnan’s effort in 1986.
But it was that run, 50 years ago, that put India – and Vijay Amritraj – on the global tennis stage in the Open Era. And it came at Wimbledon, the grandest stage of them all.