India’s long road to the Davis Cup final in 1974 began on a hot Saturday in May in Kanpur when it took on Japan in the quarterfinals of the Eastern Zone’s main draw. That team, powered by a tall 20-year-old sensation from Madras by the name of Vijay Amritraj, defeated its opponents with relative ease to move on to play one of the giants of the sport – Australia.

That face-off was thrilling and dramatic. Heroic efforts from Jasjit Singh along with Vijay and his brother Anand Amritraj helped India beat the Aussies 3-2 in Calcutta to advance to the semi-finals of the main competition.

Standing in its way next was a very good Soviet team that had edged out Czechoslovakia in Donetsk. But, high on confidence after defeating Australia, the Amritraj brothers made quick work of the Soviets in Poona to take the tie 3-1. This was only the second time that India advanced all the way to the final of the Davis Cup. India, which participated in the competition for the first time in 1921, was the runner-up in 1966, losing to Australia in what was called the Challenge Round.

The euphoria of the feat lasted less than two weeks, until the players recognised there was a major obstacle standing between them and lifting the trophy. The obstruction had nothing to do with the strength of the other semi-finalists, but instead an ugly form of racial discrimination practiced by one of them – Apartheid.

On the evening of October 4, news reached India that the South African team had taken an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the semi-final tie against Italy. India immediately announced its decision to forfeit rather than play South Africa.

History of boycott

India began to boycott South Africa even before it had attained independence. The policy was adopted after the South African authorities passed the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act in 1946. This law, called the “Ghetto Act” by Indians, restricted Indian ownership of property to designated areas in towns besides forbidding them from buying land from non-Asians without a permit. It also placed several political restrictions on them.

“Before the passing of the Ghetto Act, the Indian Government had urged the Union Government (of South Africa) to convene a roundtable conference,” the Indian government said in a 1951 book published by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting titled Apartheid: Strategy of Race Discrimination. “The Union Government was not in a conciliatory mood, and after the Act was passed, relations between the two governments deteriorated.” India ended up suspending trade agreements with South Africa, and this eventually led to a complete boycott of the country.

In December 1946, India took up the matter in the United Nations General Assembly, which passed a resolution stating that “the treatment of Indians in the Union should be in conformity with the international obligations under the agreements concluded between the two governments and the relevant provisions of the [UN] Charter.”

This was rejected by South African Prime Minister Field Marshal Jan Smuts, who shrugged off the UN as a body dominated by coloured people. When Jawaharlal Nehru made attempts to resolve the situation after India gained independence, Smuts dismissed these too.

Jan Smuts. Credit: Yousuf Karsh/Dutch National Archives/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl]

At the forefront of global efforts to boycott Apartheid South Africa, India cultivated a relationship with African freedom fighters and continued providing them moral and diplomatic support until the fall of the racist regime in the early 1990s.

Between the governments, though, the relations remained frosty. Since there was no scope of bilateral sporting ties between India and South Africa, the countries never faced each other on the cricket pitch. Australia, New Zealand and England too stopped playing South Africa once the International Cricket Council, the governing body for the sport, banned the country in 1970.

It was only at select international sporting events that Indian athletes competed against South Africans. For instance, in the 1960 Rome Olympics, it was South Africa’s Malcolm Clive Spence who edged out Milkha Singh to win bronze in the 400-metres race.

International pressure

As soon as it became clear that South Africa would be its opponent in the 1974 Davis Cup final, India decided to forfeit the game. Media reports at the time offered hope of a compromise. RK Khanna, the secretary of the All-India Lawn Tennis Federation, promised Associated Press that he would ask the Indian government to review its decision. But, in the end, for India, “opposing apartheid was more important than winning an international tennis championship,” he declared.

Khanna, who represented India at the International Lawn Tennis Federation, was under pressure from its president Walter Elcock, who was among the first people to publicly comment on India’s planned forfeiture. “Something like this has never happened in the history of the Davis Cup, so far as I know,” Elcock told AP. “To think that this competition, the biggest in the world, had to let politics get into it.”

Elcock refused to accept the Indian argument on apartheid. “If India was not willing to play South Africa, they should have withdrawn when the draw was made more than a year ago,” he said, adding that the authorities were considering disciplinary measures against India.

Basil Reay, the secretary of the Davis Cup Nations Committee, went as far as threatening to expel India from the future editions of the competition. Neither Elcock nor Reay’s threat came to pass.

For their part, South African tennis officials were keen to go ahead with the final. The country had a system that exempted certain visitors from official racial discrimination by giving them the status of “Honorary Whites”. India considered such an offer insulting.

Another compromise proposed by South Africa was to stage the final in a neutral country. Its officials sent a telegram to their Indian counterparts, asking them to reconsider their decision. “We assure you our team was selected on merit and non-racial basis,” the telegram said.

India stuck to its stand, and South Africa was awarded the 1974 Davis Cup.

Growing consensus

It’s hard to say what the outcome of the final would have been, had it been played. The Amritraj brothers were rising stars and had considerable momentum after their victories over tough opponents, such as the USSR and Australia, but the South African side was no pushover.

Bob Hewitt, an Australian-born naturalised South African, had won a career Grand Slam in men’s doubles, while his teammate Ray Moore was a decent singles player who had a victory over the great Arthur Ashe under his belt.

Bob Hewitt. Credit: Eric Koch/Nationaal Archief/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl]

South Africa was upset about the tainted Davis Cup victory, the first and only time a team won because of the opponent’s default. In November 1974, it called on the Davis Cup Nations Committee to bar India because it “disrupted the competition”. The demand was withdrawn after India produced “documentary evidence” to show that the decision was made by the government.

Meanwhile, buoyed by the success of its pressure on the International Cricket Council to ban South Africa from international cricket in 1970, India made similar attempts in other sports. Along with Sri Lanka, it threatened to withdraw from the 1974 World Amateur Snooker Championships unless South Africa was kept out. The host, the Republic of Ireland, accepted their demand and barred the South Africans.

Next year, in April, India appealed to the Davis Cup Nations Committee to ban South Africa altogether because of its racist policies. The motion was rejected, but only by a narrow margin.

Inspired by India’s stand in 1974, Mexico refused to host the South Africans in 1975 and, when this resulted in a walkover, their opponents in the next round, the Colombians, too refused to play. After two defaults, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile agreed to play the apartheid state, a tie South Africa lost 5-0. In the next edition, South Africa was drawn against a strong Mexican team and won only by default.

Many major tennis powers refused to play South Africa after that. The Soviet Union, which boycotted the 1976 semi-final against Pinochet’s Chile, announced that it would not play South Africa either. Eventually, the Soviets were suspended from the competition.

The apartheid regime’s tennis team met with hostile crowds wherever they went in the late 1970s. When the United States hosted them in Nashville in 1978, protestors booed them.

The Indian team didn’t manage to reach the Davis Cup final again until 1987. By this time Vijay Amritraj was past his prime. When the great was asked about the 1974 boycott in an interview, he expressed disappointment at not being able to win the Davis Cup but fully supported the Indian government’s decision. It was “the best thing we did,” he said.

“For South African tennis, that was the first major” boycott, Amritraj said. “But for us, it was a huge issue because we were supporting a way of life that we all believed in as the world’s largest democracy. It is not something to be taken lightly. Sport is a miniscule portion of [the] true way of life.”

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.