Vijay Amritraj was inducted into the world of professional tennis at a very young age, and by the time he was in his 20s, he was already turning heads at international tournaments by trouncing top-seed players like Björn Borg and Jimmy Connors. He speaks to Bhumika Popli about his rise to tennis stardom and his family’s contribution to his career.
Q. You are considered the greatest player in the history of Indian tennis. How do you look back on your life?
A. I look back on my entire life as a great blessing. It has been my biggest education. I am always on a learning curve. I am trying to teach myself new things every day. I am fortunate to meet new people all the time. And so, it’s a blessing.
Q. Your mother, Maggie Amritraj, passed away recently. Could you talk to us about her impact on your life?
A. She was the be all and end all of what I am today. What I am today is 98% her effort, not mine. I was just very fortunate to be born to the right parents. I was often ill as a child [Amritraj spent much of his life battling lung disease] and she took care of me all the way through. Even went on to take notes in school for me. She would visit me in the hospital and teach me. And she put me in tennis to make me healthier. My entire life story is based entirely on her efforts.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice she gave you?
A. She always told me that I would be the best tennis player India will ever have. And I was seven years old at that time.
Q. How did you get interested in tennis?
A. It was my mother’s side of the family that was interested in tennis. Also, when my health became a concern and doctors wanted me to play an outdoor sport, tennis became our choice.
Q. Tell us about your most memorable tennis match.
A. There are different matches that stick in your mind from different stages of your career. I played a college tournament in Chennai as a schoolboy and won that tournament in five sets in the final. It was before my 14th birthday. So in a way, that was a very special match at the time—it gave me faith and hope in what I was doing. And it did the same with my mom.
By the time I was 18 years old, I won the national championship of India, beating the then national champion during a weak period of my life, which was again a very special moment. It was like the next stepping stone.
When I was 19 I ended up making the world’s Top 10, beating Rod Laver at the US Open, which was indeed a big moment for me. So it all happened very quickly by the time I ended my teenage years.
Q. You have played against tennis greats like Jimmy Connors and Björn Borg among others. What are you memories of those players?
A. Connors is a good friend of mine. We meet many times. He was certainly one of the greats of the game. Having played against Connor, John McEnroe, Björn Borg, Rod Laver, Stan Smith and all these guys—it was a blur for me. If I think about that today, I feel very fortunate to have done that, to have played at the highest level.
Q. What did it take for you to reach and perform at this level of the game?
A. I don’t think there is any one thing. It has to come from within each individual. It depends on what each individual wants to be. And what you are willing to give up for that.
Q. What did you have to give up for tennis?
A. I gave up my entire childhood. I didn’t have any school friends. We hardly went for a movie. Everything was an education in tennis. Not going anywhere, not hanging out. I started around five in the morning and finished at 10 at night. I was doing only three things: school, tennis and running. We ran a lot, around 10 miles a day.
Today, most people know what they are chasing. You know where you want to end up playing. And you know what you will end up doing. In those days, we didn’t know what we were chasing. It was a blind chase. We couldn’t see anything before us. There was nothing available on radio or television. We were really flying blind to get better at something of which we didn’t know what the end goal would be. A big difference compared to today. Back then, it was a much riskier approach. That’s why I give even more credit to what my parents did for me.
Q. Who in your view are the brightest tennis players in India these days?
A. We are still waiting to see who can actually make the Top 20 [as per the Association of Tennis Professionals rankings] at the end of the day, and how far we are away from that goal. It remains to be seen what we can achieve in the next 10 years.
Q. Any particular reason India lags behind so in tennis?
A. The game has got ahead of us. Many international players have got ahead of us. Work ethics, the changes in the game—all of this has made a big difference. Our boys and girls are also working hard but we are not improving as fast as the rest of the world is. To make it to the Top 100 is a big deal today. So I think we just have to stay focused, and have even more challenges in the Indian context itself, to push one another to get to higher levels.
Q. When you were playing, how did you prepare yourself for a match?
A. Besides praying, which I have always done, a lot depends on being able to think about how your opponent plays, and how your game can fit into that, and what exactly you need to do. I would discuss these things with my coach to some extent; or with someone who had played my opponent; with someone who had beaten him—I would discuss with them and see if I could figure some of the things out. But at the end of the day, you needed to figure everything out on the court.
Q. You have also acted in a couple of Hollywood films and television series. What drew you to the entertainment industry?
A. I have always been interested in motion pictures. Also, I was fortunate enough to be living in Los Angeles, to get better in my sport. It had to be either Florida or LA. I chose LA. And LA is very much at the heart of the industry. So you end up enjoying the entertainment industry all the more.
Q. Any words of advice for youngsters who want to pursue tennis?
A. I think everything is possible. Rolex has brought a programme called Road to Wimbledon here for children. One needs to understand the importance of it. It should encourage and inspire them to be able to give up everything else to chase this dream, if it is their dream. I think it is a spectacular programme, because it gives the best kids a chance to compete with each other at the Wimbledon in the month of August. As for the advice: one needs only to be committed to their goal.