In May 1973, Nikola Pilic (Yugoslavia’s number one tennis player) was suspended by his national federation, the Yugoslav Tennis Association, which claimed he had refused to play in a Davis Cup tie for his country against New Zealand earlier that month.
Pilic was initially suspended for nine months but it was later was reduced by the International Lawn Tennis Federation to one month. It still meant that the Yugoslav would not be permitted to play at Wimbledon. The Association of Tennis Professionals, which had been formed recently, decided to take a stand and said that no one should compete if Pilic was not allowed to compete.
As a result, 81 of the top players, including reigning champion Stan Smith, boycotted Wimbledon in 1973 to protest the suspension. Twelve of the 16 men’s seeds withdrew. This resulted in a large number of qualifiers and lucky losers.
In fact, one look at the Wimbledon main draw will tell you that there were as many as seven Indians (Vijay Amritraj, Premjit Lall, Jaideep Mukherjea, Ashok Amritraj, Jasjit Singh, Chiradip Mukherjea, Gaurav Misra) in the men’s singles competition.
This boycott was an opportunity for the then 19-year-old Vijay Amritraj and he grabbed it with both hands by making a run to the quarter-finals before he was finally beaten by eventual champion Jan Kodes in five sets (4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7). The young Indian came within two points of upsetting Kodes but he gave enough notice of his talent to make everyone (including those boycotting the event) to pay attention.
Amritraj, at 6’4”, was very tall by Indian standards but what set him apart were his powerful groundstrokes and his serve. He was thin but most expected him to fill out and get even stronger. It was this early promise that made him part of the ABC (Amritraj, Borg, Connors) of tennis. Amritraj was 19. Borg was 16. Connors was 20. They were all expected to be around and compete for the big prizes.
A month later, Amritraj made the headlines by surviving eight match points against three opponents to win the Volvo International in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
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 found a way to win and take home the $5,000 first prize and a new car.
In a sense, he was already right up there competing with the best. But he really caught the imagination of the public when he beat Laver at the US Open after a three-hour battle.
In the table below, we take a year-by-year look at the progression of Amritraj’s career. From 1973 to 1981, the Indian star was competing at a very high level indeed.
|1990||3||0||3||0.0%||R32 (Hong Kong)|
|1978||28||16||12||57.1%||W (Mexico City)|
The big battles
Amritraj won a total of 15 singles titles on the ATP tour but it was the ones that got away that perhaps explain why he wasn’t able to rise even higher in the rankings.
The Indian was always competitive and capable of pushing the best in the business but somehow, there were times when he failed to strike the finishing blow. It was an aspect that was a bit surprising given how he had made his mark by fighting off match points at the start of his career.
Some thought that Amritraj was maybe too nice, maybe too much of a gentleman.
But perhaps the problem was fitness too.
Akhtar Ali, the eminent coach who travelled with Amritraj in the early years, explained that the problem might have been compounded by asthma.
“He [Amritraj] was an asthma patient,” said Ali. “He didn’t, rather couldn’t train for long periods. As such, the shorter the match, the better was his chances of winning it. If you have a look at his career statistics, you will find that he lost a lot of five set matches.”
|16-Jun-1986||Bristol||Grass||F||104||9||(WC)Amritraj d. (1)Henri Leconte [FRA]||7-6 1-6 8-6|
|09-Dec-1980||WCT Challenge Cup||Carpet||F||34||3||John Mcenroe [USA] d. Amritraj||6-1 2-6 6-1|
|24-Mar-1980||Milan||Carpet||F||34||3||(1)John Mcenroe [USA] d. Amritraj||6-1 6-4|
|19-Feb-1980||WCT Invitational||Carpet||F||34||1||Bjorn Borg [SWE] d. Amritraj||7-5 6-1 6-3|
|30-Oct-1978||Cologne||Hard||F||60||15||(4)Wojtek Fibak [POL] d. Amritraj||6-2 0-1 RET|
|25-Sep-1978||Mexico City||Clay||F||60||7||Amritraj d. Raul Ramirez [MEX]||6-4 6-4|
|17-Feb-1976||St. Louis WCT||Carpet||F||29||2||(1)Guillermo Vilas [ARG] d. Amritraj||4-6 6-0 6-4|
|17-Nov-1975||Calcutta||Clay||F||32||9||(2)Amritraj d. (1)Manuel Orantes [ESP]||7-5 6-3|
|10-Jun-1974||Beckenham||Grass||F||24||10||Amritraj d. Tom Gorman [USA]||6-7 6-2 6-4|
|27-Mar-1974||Tempe||Hard||F||29||4||(1)Jimmy Connors [USA] d. Amritraj||6-1 6-2|
All his titles
|1980||2||Bangkok (Indoor/Carpet)Newport (Outdoor/Grass)|
|1978||1||Mexico City (Indoor/Carpet)|
|1977||2||Bombay (Outdoor/Clay)Auckland (Outdoor/Grass)|
|1976||2||Newport (Outdoor/Grass)Memphis WCT (Indoor/Carpet)|
|1975||2||Calcutta (Indoor/Carpet)Columbus (Outdoor/Hard)|
|1974||1||Washington Indoor (Indoor/Carpet)|
|1973||2||New Delhi (Outdoor/Grass)Bretton Woods (Outdoor/Clay)|
Good on grass
Amritraj had a pretty even record on all surfaces but he really could raise his level on grass. His serve and the shorter points meant he was always in with a good chance. He won five titles on the surface and made it to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon twice (1973 and 1981).
But to many, given his style of play and the weapons he had at his disposal, he should have gone better. Way better.
At Wimbledon, he won 21 of the 38 matches he played. At the US Open, he won 15 of 27. And he chose to avoid playing the Australian Open (playing it just twice) and the French Open (playing it just once) for most of his career.
On his day, Amritraj (who reached his highest ATP ranking of 18 in 1980) could beat anyone. But strangely enough, he could also lose to anyone.
Fred Perry, former Wimbledon champion, felt that Amritraj’s defeat to Connors in the Wimbledon quarters in 1981 was the direct result of his lack of “killer punch”.
“You may have the most gorgeous style in the world,” said Perry. “But when you knock a man down don’t sit on him, jump on him and knock him further in.”
Arthur Ashe, captain of the US Davis Cup team and former Wimbledon champ, felt the same way. “Vijay is a soft player with a known history of losing when winning – he just cracks.”
Though, Amritraj wasn’t exactly inclined to agree. When asked about his alleged lack of aggressiveness and the killer instinct, he had said: “There are two ways to look at it. One, Borg has proven that you don’t have to be like that to be a winner, and secondly, if you have to be like McEnroe to be number one, then I don’t want it.”
The big rivals
|13||John Mcenroe [USA]||2||11||15.4%||1979||1985|
|12||Jimmy Connors [USA]||6||6||50.0%||1972||1985|
|10||Dick Stockton [USA]||5||5||50.0%||1973||1980|
|9||Stan Smith [USA]||5||4||55.6%||1972||1979|
|8||Anders Jarryd [SWE]||0||8||0.0%||1981||1987|
|8||Wojtek Fibak [POL]||1||7||12.5%||1977||1986|
|8||Brian Teacher [USA]||6||2||75.0%||1973||1981|
|8||Colin Dibley [AUS]||3||5||37.5%||1972||1980|
|7||Eliot Teltscher [USA]||1||6||14.3%||1979||1985|
|7||Vitas Gerulaitis [USA]||3||4||42.9%||1972||1984|
|7||Ken Rosewall [AUS]||1||6||14.3%||1973||1977|
|6||Ivan Lendl [USA]||0||6||0.0%||1980||1985|
|6||Sandy Mayer [USA]||1||5||16.7%||1974||1984|
|6||Raul Ramirez [MEX]||2||4||33.3%||1973||1981|
|6||Eddie Dibbs [USA]||4||2||66.7%||1975||1980|
To some Amritraj was “a Ranjitsinhji with a racket”, such was his style, grace and sportsmanship. He always played the game in the right spirit. But to many others, after Ramanathan Krishnan, he came closest to becoming the first Indian to win a singles Grand Slam. It was a chance that not many have got since and perhaps something that will continue to rankle many Indian tennis fans.
To Amritraj himself, it may not have mattered. For him, it was always about having a good time playing the game he loved.
Statistics: Tennis Abstract / ATP